By Elias Hazou
THE CYPRUS Tourism Organisation’s (CTO) decision to shutter its Vienna office in December 2013 – despite strong admonitions not to by the tourism industry – may have been a case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater due to internal politics within the SGO, sources tell the Sunday Mail.
The contentious move is said to have been prompted by certain CTO officials’ desire in Nicosia to get rid of the head of the Vienna bureau, who as far back as 2008 was reporting back to headquarters dodgy goings-on in the CTO’s offices in central and eastern Europe.
They were reported both to the then CTO director as well as subsequently to the organisation’s in-house financial auditor.
These included suspected mismanagement, throwing good money after bad and even potential fraud, observed by Zak Papadopoulos, at the time director of the CTO Vienna office.
He reported shifty invoicing for services rendered to the CTO by third-party operators in Hungary, for organising unnecessary and inconsequential promotional events in that country. In one instance, Nicosia-based CTO officials flew to events in Bratislava, all expenses paid, whereas someone could instead have been sent from the Vienna office for free. In another, someone from Cyprus was sent to attend what is described as a third-rate tourism convention in Vienna, when staff based in Vienna itself could have attended.
At the same time, Papadopoulos was recommending reforms, criticising the millions of euros being thrown at generic advertising, particularly in the UK and Germany. Money wasted, the sources said, as this type of promotion is totally unnecessary in countries familiar with Cyprus as a sun-and-sea destination.
On the other hand, targeted advertising, coupled personal sales calls, and hands-on collaboration between local CTO staff with travel agents, operators and the media, is seen as far more effective in generating interest in the island.
But it appears that Papadopoulos’ whistleblowing backfired. Relations between him and the CTO “centre” in Nicosia deteriorated.
In one terse letter to the organisation, obtained by the Sunday Mail, Papadopoulos complains of having been denied a request for a four-day rest leave, pointing out that, to date, he had only used up a third of the leave he was entitled to.
Becoming even more explicit, Papadopoulos writes that he considers the CTO’s behaviour toward him to be “hostile”.
To industry people, the decision to nix Vienna was unfathomable and came like a bolt out of the blue. The CTO itself had commissioned a study back in 2012 for a cost-benefit analysis of its overseas offices, as well as which offices should be shut down and which kept.
The study recommended that, because Vienna is a hub for air links between Austria and Cyprus, the office there should be upgraded to a regional centre, overseeing the activities of the CTO offices in Budapest, Prague and Warsaw. The reason was mainly geography: Vienna airport is a favourite departure point for people in neighbouring countries.
The study was shelved for about a year. Then, in late February 2013 the CTO’s marketing department made recommendations to the board starkly contradicting the study’s findings. Vienna was to be folded, the only non-satellite office in Europe to suffer this fate.
Also earmarked for closure were the CTO offices in New York, Helsinki, Budapest, Prague and Dublin. Command and control over the eastern European countries as well as Austria would be handed over to the office in Germany. Warsaw, meanwhile, was to be bumped up to regional status, again contrary to the study’s recommendations.
Virtually no country has assigned either Warsaw or Frankfurt as their regional tourism office. Vienna is the only European airport outside of Great Britain and Greece with daily flights to Cyprus.
News of the CTO’s intentions toward its Vienna office drew a storm of protests from the industry: the Association of Cyprus Travel Agents (ACTA), the Cyprus Hotels Association (PASYXE) and the Cyprus Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KEVE). Even ambassadors serving in countries neighbouring Austria expressed concern.
Asked to comment, Zacharias Ioannides, director-general of PASYXE, confirmed that they were against Vienna’s closure and made their thoughts known to the CTO, even asking and getting a meeting with the latter’s leadership. But the CTO wouldn’t budge.
“We believed, and still do, that Vienna is an important hub. It’s our contention that tourist traffic from and via Austria might be multiple times what it currently is, were a dynamic office present in Vienna,” he said.
The CTO said it wanted to trim costs. By closing Vienna, as well as other offices elsewhere, the savings would best be diverted to promoting the island in under-represented countries.
But it’s understood that both PASYXE as well as KEVE were not sold on the CTO’s arguments.
Austrian airline Fly Niki was likewise alarmed. The Sunday Mail has seen a letter by Andreas Gruber, Fly Niki’s senior manager of network planning, addressed to CTO director Marios Hannides.
In the missive, dated September 16, 2013, Gruber says the airline “deeply” regrets the CTO’s decision, adding he hopes it will be revised.
“We (sic) wish to emphasise our protest for taking such a downgrading in terms of the presence of Cyprus tourism in Austria,” Gruber writes.
Sources familiar with the subject say that Gruber never even got a response.
Papadopoulos, in charge of the Vienna bureau for several years, is credited for clinching deals with important air carriers such as Fly Niki and Wizzair, resulting in a significant uptake in seats.
The Mail has also seen correspondence by Cypriot ambassadors praising the work of the Vienna office under Papadopoulos’ watch.
In one instance, in December 2012 the then Cypriot ambassador in Bratislava saw fit to write to the foreign ministry in Nicosia, informing that five foreign travel agents were including in their packages flights to the occupied north.
This development, the ambassador noted, was apparently missed because of lack of coordination/communication due to the fact the Vienna office no longer had supervision over the Slovak market.
The diplomat said also that since the CTO Vienna office was stripped of its jurisdiction over Slovakia, there had been a drop of around 30 per cent in Slovak tourists travelling to Cyprus.