By Agnieszka Rakoczy
MORE FIVE-STAR hotels, Las Vegas-style casinos and an 18-hole golf course are planned for the Vokolida (Bafra in Turkish) coastline to the north-east of Famagusta at the very gateway to the Karpasia Peninsula, says Mehmet Yildirim, deputy director of the Cyprus Turkish Investment Development Agency (YAGA), the organisation charged with facilitating large local and foreign investments in the north.
Stalled for years since first unveiled as an ambitious concept in 2003, the Bafra Tourism Investment Project was seen by some to be a Turkish Cypriot version of Ayia Napa. Others dubbed it a 21st century Varosha variation.
The project has recently been given a new lease of life following a progress review of developments to date by the authorities in the north and their decision to impose stricter deadlines for implementation and completion of planned activities in the area.
In some instances, the authorities have even revoked previously signed contracts and leased the freed-up plots anew in a bid to revitalise and deliver the grand vision for a centre for international tourism and gambling.
“The new contracts are much stricter and allow us to check up on the stages of the planned developments,” says Yildirim. “The earlier contracts did not protect our side’s interests, the new ones do. Should a developer fail to keep his deadlines, fines will be imposed.”
The project aims to increase the north’s tourism capacity by at least 15,000 beds. The long-term objective is for the entire Vokolida beach area to become one large resort complex. This would comprise a mix of luxury hotels and casinos, their designs mostly inspired by and modelled on themes from ancient history or mythology.
The Turkish Cypriot regime gave the go ahead to build on land belonging to the government of the Republic of Cyprus, previously classified as low level forest. At the beginning of the millennium, the designated area’s status was changed to “special tourism development”. The new classification meant that the land could be developed and built upon, which has raised serious environmental concerns (see below).
In 2003, the area in question was divided up into 14 plots and sold as 49-year-long leaseholds to 10 investors. Most were private companies from Turkey.
The Turkish Development Bank put around €224 million at their disposal and the plan was that all the proposed hotels would be built by 2007. Some money was also put aside for new roads and related infrastructure.
Not only was the venture supposed to strengthen the image of northern Cyprus as a tourism destination but it was also intended to create new jobs and income opportunities for the local population. The expectation was that there would be openings in the burgeoning hospitality and tourism industry for local workers and a commensurate growth in demand for local agricultural produce to supply a whole new range of catering outlets including high-end restaurants.
Those initial expectations failed to materialise. Eleven years on and only two of the planned hotels are up and running. Rosy optimism has been reality checked and found wanting. Nobody seems to be happy with the project once hailed to become the crown jewel of the north’s tourism industry.
Of the two functioning hotels now operational, one, the 734-room Kaya Artemis, resembles the ancient Temple of Artemis from Ephesus, while the other, the 684-room Noah’s Ark, is, precisely as its name implies, built in the shape of a giant ark (but with no animals in evidence). Both establishments have been struggling since they opened in 2007 and 2011 respectively.
According to Noah’s Ark deputy director, Zafer Keskin, the authorities in the north failed to deliver on what they had promised.
Speaking to the Sunday Mail, Keskin said: “Look around, we are in the middle of nowhere. The planned development has not happened. Costs of running a hotel here are twice as high as in Turkey. Promised subsidies haven’t materialised. Electricity is expensive. Water can be a problem.”
Both Kaya Artemis and Noah’s Ark are heavily dependent on their casino operations for their income. But neither casino can really compete with similar establishments currently mushrooming all over Kyrenia.
If the authorities really want the area to succeed as the north’s casino capital, “they have to stop giving licences to all the other casinos,” one Turkish Cypriot official told the Sunday Mail. “Right now, just the opposite is happening. We are giving casino licences to everyone who asks for one. We are giving them out left, right and centre.”
The company owning Kaya Artemis has several resorts in Antalya as well. To help sustain revenue flow in its northern Cyprus hotel, the company now offers clients a combination package enabling those holidaying in the chain’s Turkey-based establishments to spend some of their vacation here on the island.
Noah’s Ark has no such lifeboat or fall-back position. It relies on special events to attract its clientele and add to its appeal. The most recent of these was an international poker tournament. With prizes totalling a million euros, the tournament reportedly drew more than 300 international professional and amateur players to the tables.
Jackpot lure or not, a stroll around the main building of Noah’s Ark suggests less than a full house. Many of its rooms and suites appear empty and other areas of the expansive premises seem under-utilised to the point where air conditioning has been switched off or is irregular. Not the ideal when walking lengthy corridors inside a state of the art glass structure mercilessly exposed to the heat of the Cyprus summer sun.
Neither hotel has won plaudits for local hires. Estimates range from about 30 per cent of jobs at the two establishments to a mere five per cent. It depends on who you talk to.
According to Ahmet Adalier, the ex-mayor of Galateia (Mehmetcik), there is a legal obligation that 70 per cent of each hotel’s staff should comprise local employees. However, he told the Sunday Mail, “they give to us only the worst and lowest paid kind of jobs”.
Noah’s Ark deputy director Keskin indignantly disagrees.
“We would be very happy to have more local people working for us. As a matter of fact we are always looking for employees, but the truth is they are not interested. The hotel business is tough. Very few Cypriots stay with us longer, even though we offer very good deals and training schemes. In fact, we have a reputation as one of the best employers on the island. Sadly, they come, they see, they quit.”
Nor did the so-called ancillary benefits materialise, according to people in the surrounding community.
“What agriculture? There is none. We don’t produce enough to supply stuff to the hotels on a regular basis,” said ecotourism expert Ismail Cemal from Komi Kebir (Buyukkonuk). His view is shared by Adalir who says farming in the region is almost dead because most of the villages lack sufficient water to sustain it.
“Throughout the summer we have to bring water in tankers from Yesilkoy (Ayios Andronikos) and Famagusta. The municipality pays around 5000 TL per day for water just to survive. Most of our orchards are dying. Everybody here is waiting for water that is supposed to come next year from Turkey. Otherwise we will all die.”
Officials claim the hotels should not have any water problems because an Israeli-owned desalination plant next to them produces around 2000 cubic metres of water a day. Actually it can produce twice as much provided there are more hotels which will need it.
The ex-mukhtar laughs off the explanation.
“The truth is every summer the water supply to our villages decreases, just as our needs increase, and this is because the authorities send it to the hotels for tourists.”’
Despite the contradictions and the history of stop-go development, some further planned investments are on the drawing board for construction in the immediate vicinity of Noah’s Ark and Kaya Artemis.
Drawings, seen by the Sunday Mail, show one planned resort built to replicate the legendary hanging gardens of Babylon, while another pays tribute to Rome’s famous Colosseum. In the case of the latter, the drawings do not specify whether there will be a special rate for gladiators or free parking for chariots. A venue perhaps for the Lions’ Club?
Yet another project is described by its architects as “’a highly abstract version of Roman Villa Hadriana in Tivoli”.
Yildirim remains optimistic and says the Turkish Cypriot authorities realise many things around Vokolida (Bafra) have to improve. This is why they have gone back to the drawing board, putting more thought into planning the region’s infrastructure.
“We are working on that – planning the whole area. We need more social facilities, restaurants, bars, dormitories for workers, more social activities. We are planning to develop clusters of those for the entire area.”
He believes that once more hotels open and the golf course starts operating, the whole area will pick up immediately.
“There is a lot of private investment into the land around the Bafra project. Many foreigners from Israel, United Kingdom, Iran, Lebanon, and the Scandinavian countries bought plots there. Right now they are waiting. But once they see the time is ripe they will start building as well.”
SOME ACTIVISTS argue that environmental concerns clearly need to be revisited and that the applicable criteria should be revised and enforced. They would like to see greater transparency on the overall issue of tourism development in the north.
In the case of Vokolida (Bafra), a recurring complaint is how the initial decision to reclassify the general area for special tourism development meant that thousands of donums of low grade forest and shrubs were literally swept away under an unfurling carpet of concrete and tarmac. To the dismay and alarm of those in the eco-conscious camp, infrastructure rolled forward relentlessly over nature as the deal was cemented right down to the shoreline of some of the island’s finest beaches.
Robin Snape, a leading environmentalist and board member of the North Cyprus Society for the Protection of Birds and Nature as well as head of Marine Turtle Conservation Project, notes that projects of the Bafra scale and magnitude require precise and detailed study as to their potential impact on environment.
“I don’t believe that anything like this has been done in Bafra. Nobody has ever consulted us, nobody has asked any questions. If they were doing a proper research we would have definitely been consulted.”
But Mehmet Yildirim, deputy director of the Cyprus Turkish Investment Development Agency (YAGA), counters that due diligence was and is observed: “Each investor has to submit an environment impact assessment report to the ‘Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources’. If the ministry does not approve the project, it won’t happen.”
Environmental activist Hakan Djuma, says that if the Bafra desalination plant produces 2000 cubic metres a day it is inadequate, given per capita consumption requirements and the upkeep demands associated with hotel landscaping maintenance, swimming pools etc. According to Djuma, the plant was supposed to produce 4000 cubic metres daily but is in dispute with the authorities, possibly because of the high cost of electricity required to operate the system.