Cyprus Mail
Cyprus

Simmering dispute over ownership of popular diving spot

Divers exploring the Zenobia wreck

By Andria Kades
A planned €5 entrance fee to dive at the Zenobia wreck off Larnaca has become the bone of contention between the port authority, diving companies and the disputed owner of the sunken ship.
Andreas Panayiotou, through his company A.A.K Larnaca Ay Napa Sea Cruises, is recognised by the port authority as the owner of the popular diving spot because he possesses a document signed by the Supreme Court transferring all the shares to Panayiotou’s company for £15,000 in 1998.
Nevertheless five members of the Cyprus Dive Centres Association – Viking Divers, Atlantis Sea Cruises, Dive-In, Alpha Divers and Octopus Diving Centre – have been in a legal dispute with Panayiotou for several months over his claim he has the right to charge a fee to dive at the wreck.
They are also disputing his ownership, saying that the sea is a free place for everyone and are also questioning the conditions of the document, according to the association’s chairman Nicos Nicolaou.
Although not itself embroiled in the spat, the association has made clear their backing of its members and says that the document Panayiotou has presented, which the port has accepted, simply granted Panayiotou the right to sell the wreck within three years from the date of purchase for scrap.
Calling it non conclusive proof of his ownership, they are rejecting his request that every diver should pay €5 to see the wreck.
Speaking to the Cyprus Mail Panayiotou completely refuted claims he might sell off the Zenobia – a possibility the Green party has expressed their concern about – and said that he was not required to prove to anyone that he was the rightful owner.
“If the port authority classes me as the owner, and sent me letters asking me to install buoys around the wreck then naturally I am the owner,” he said.
“It’s been over 20 years, if the state is the owner then why have they not taken it from me?”
Larnaca port chief Ioannis Lakkotrypis confirmed that indeed, based on the same document, Panayiotou is the rightful owner and the port has no right to interfere in his request.
“In my opinion you can’t impose fares for diving in Cyprus’ sea,” he said, but added the port can’t do anything if Panayiotou wanted to charge.
Asked whether the alleged three year ownership stipulation on Panayiotou’s documentation was valid and binding, Lakkotrypis said this was for the court to decide and the fact that the port was using it as proof of Panayiotou’s ownership meant it was approved at the time, by their legal advisor.
“It is not for us to question now,” he told the Cyprus Mail. “If the court finds that (the conditions of the document) are true then things change.”
Calling it one of the “hottest issues” he explained that “to visit the wreckage you pay the (diving) company not because they take you to the sunken ship but because of the fuel, the equipment you rent and other port costs.”
“He (Panayiotou) wants to go over and above. He wants to charge €5. In what country does this happen? It’s the concept that bothers people, why should I pay to see the sea?”
The matter however runs deeper as, according to both Panayiotou and Lakkotrypis, diving companies want to avoid the €5 charge because they would then have to reveal how many clients they take, issue receipts and would then be liable for VAT.
“The divers aren’t saints either,” Lakkotrypis told the Cyprus Mail.
The allegation was denied by Nicolaou who said diving clubs are fully transparent over their business.
According to Panayiotou, diving companies can charge anywhere from €50 to €130 to dive at the Zenobia wreck. “What’s €5 to them? We just want to introduce regulations that protect the safety of the divers and as I have owned it for years and pay rent to the port authority for the surrounding area near Zenobia, I too want to make money from it.”
“When I took over, Zenobia attracted like 2,000 people. Now it attracts around 40,000 people per year. I’ve worked a lot for this,” he told the Cyprus Mail.
Based on his figures, a letter from his lawyer to the diving companies said, assuming they charge divers €50, this should be bringing them over €2 million in taxable income.
“Maybe it’s the stricter control that your clients are afraid of,” the letter said.
Admitting this is a complex matter, Nicolaou stressed that all companies have a licence from the port authority allowing them to go ahead with the dives, and questioned why they should be answerable to Panayiotou whose ownership they dispute.
Lakkotrypis clarified that although they do issue licences to the companies, the regulations are up to the owner to decide.
Earlier this year, officials said the Zenobia shipwreck contributed over €14mln to the economy annually.
The Zenobia sank in June 1980 on its maiden voyage from Sweden to Syria. It is the largest shipwreck in the Mediterranean at 174 metres long, 28 metres wide and 21 metres high.
Its hold contained 108 Lorries full of cargo such as cars, military equipment, telecommunication systems, air conditioning systems, toys and food.
It was also carrying a million eggs, many of which are still intact on the seabed.
The wreck has turned into an artificial reef that hosts thousands of fish species such as groupers, barracuda, bream, and others, along with coral, sea anemones and other underwater vegetation.
Sank at a depth of around 42 metresit is easily accessible and is just 10 minutes by boat from the mainland.

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