By Annette Chrysostomou
The cabinet’s approval last week of the interior minister’s strategic plan for the mountain resorts is yet another attempt to halt and reverse the decades-long depopulation of the Troodos area.
The main objectives are to attract more people to live in the area, to promote tourism, to balance the protection and exploitation of natural resources and to improve infrastructure and transport.
Though the details remain vague, it is clearly an ambitious plan which is long overdue. The mountain resorts may have been the birthplace of tourism on the island, but they have struggled for years even though tourists reached an all-time high of over three million visitors in 2017.
Every August for around two weeks from the 14th of the month, mountain hotels reach around 60 per cent capacity which falls to 50 per cent by the end of the month and then plummets. From February to May those establishments which operate at all do so at a loss.
To implement and monitor the project, Interior Minister Constantinos Petrides has suggested establishing an inter-ministerial committee on a grand scale, involving himself as chairman and including the ministers of finance, transport, communications and works, and agriculture and rural development.
The polytechnic school of the University of Thessalia has been assigned the task of developing the comprehensive development model.
The president has appointed Yiannakis Papadouris, community leader of the mountain village of Kalopanayiotis who also runs a successful business in Dubai, as the adviser.
Papadouris is an astute choice. Kalopanayiotis is a mountain success story. Since 2002, when he was voted community leader Papadouris has been at the forefront of the village’s transformation, adding roads, and renovating old buildings into hotels, a library, self-catering apartments, a popular spa resort and restaurants. The spa is now connected by a lift to the part of the village located higher up.
He has also secured EU funding for many of the projects.
Papadouris intends to be much more than just an advisor in the mountain project and says he is prepared to invest his own money.
“I didn’t want tenders, and then they say this and that is not included,” he told the Sunday Mail this week. “I don’t want another study so I told the president I will go deep, as deep as I have to.”
The strategic plan, he explained, is going to explore every aspect, as millions have already been spent on the region without any improvement.
“I want to know everything, every aspect on how to retain the population. I want to make every person who works in agriculture and tourism say ‘I would love to go and live and work there. I will choose it because there is life there.’ We need to find out why are the medical services not as good as in the cities because they are not, why are the educational services not as good?”
The wide scope of the study will involve just about every ministry, Papadouris said.
“The only ones with whom we won’t work are the foreign and the defence ministry.”
The detailed plan will be submitted to the cabinet in June, after it has been finalised by the Greek university in consultation with the relevant governmental departments.
So far, the plans are sketchy at best. There is no indication of how many villages are included, what the budget is or if European funding will be made available.
Even when this is resolved, progress is bound to be slow, as technical committees will have to be formed after the plan is discussed and approved by the legislature, and all involved will need to agree on the details.
Slow progress is the last thing the mountain villages need, and nowhere more so than Platres.
Platres’ rise and fall as a tourist resort is well known. During the pre-air-conditioning days of the early 20th century and through the 1930s, 40s and 50s it was a green, tree-filled summer magnet for British colonial staff, rich Nicosians, Limassolians, the odd foreign royal and a writer or two.
Its decline as the beach resorts took over has lasted decades. Over the years most of its impressive hotels have closed. Just last year the Forest Park hotel, once the jewel of Platres with its 150 rooms and 85 years of history, finally closed its doors. The restaurants that are still open are pricey and mediocre at best, and the few shops have little to offer. Empty hotels and shops are now sprawled with graffiti.
The mayor of Pano Platres, Panayiotis Papadopoulos, is not sure what this strategic plan will mean for Platres but has plans of his own, some of which are being implemented already.
“The biggest problem is the closure of the hotels. In 1960 there were 16 hotels, but there has been no continuation,” he explained. “A property was divided when an owner died and the children wouldn’t decide who was going to run the place. Some of them were rich and they lost interest in the place and just left it. Some rented the hotels but those to whom they rented them didn’t invest in them, just looking to make profit so the buildings fell into disrepair.”
This, he said, spilled over. There were fewer guests to visit restaurants so these closed down, forcing employees to move away. Of the 500 permanent residents in 1950, there are now just 200.
The British government’s decision to move their soldiers away from the area in 1990 was another blow. Before that, around 120 soldiers and their families stayed in apartments, most of them young couples.
“They were accommodated in two-bedroom flats, so they had rooms for visitors and when you have guests you go out to restaurants and spend money in the village,” the mayor said.
Most recently, of course, has been the financial crisis and efforts to revive the village came to a halt.
Papadopoulos does not only blame external factors. He admits that the previous municipality also made serious mistakes, mainly in the form of a large loan for a huge sports centre which has saddled the village with a €3 million debt.
This super modern centre was meant to target professional athletes with its state of the art facilities, including a football pitch, basketball, tennis, volleyball and handball courts. Rarely used, it has become a financial burden.
Attempts to attract investors have failed so far, but the municipality now believes it has a plan which may work.
The ambitious idea is to play on Platres’ well-heeled history and turn it into ‘a resort for aristocracy’.
Much will be made of the visits by King Farouk of Egypt, the novelist Daphne du Maurier who wrote some of Rebecca there, and of course the poet George Severis who was famously kept awake by Platres’ noisy nightingales. There’s even a nod to Queen Victoria who is said to have been aware of Platres’ lavender, a herb she was so fond off that she had it embossed on her crown.
It is this past that the mayor and his team are banking on. A cultural centre and gift shop with various themes linked to the famous visitors already exists.
An open museum, where the whole village is a museum around which visitors will be guided around the old grand brick houses and their architecture is on the cards.
As regards the closed hotels, the municipality is now planning to try to sell four of the oldest hotels in the centre to one investor, as opening just one will not do the trick.
“What we have learnt is that the investors need a ready plan, they will give money but are not interested in seeing the place as it is,” the community council leader said after presenting the ideas to investors in Qatar and Lebanon.
This is no surprise. When you look at the tragic state some of the chosen hotels are in, the Pafsylipon for example, it is hard to imagine the change the mayor envisions.
The idea is to turn four central hotels into boutique hotels, each of them with a different focus. The Pafsilipon is earmarked to be ‘the heart of culture’, with a ball room for dancing. The Pendeli hotel, as it already has a swimming pool, is designated as a spa hotel, the Splendid will be for family holidays, and the Petit Palais for ‘romantic soulmates’.
Meanwhile, the future of the Forest Park hotel remains uncertain with investors showing some interest but no definite plans on the horizon. The mayor believes it would be best to keep the old part of the building, which still retains many of its attractive original features, as a hotel while selling the new wing in the form of apartment units to help finance the hotel.
The mayor is not without his critics. Some residents believe the mayor should address other issues, such as the cutting down of trees and the building of sprawling modern houses which detract from the village’s special character. And indeed, one new huge house under construction at the entrance of the village fits uncomfortably with the mayor’s plans for an open museum.
They also complain that the restaurants and the solitary supermarket are too expensive and the taxes too high.
Above all, they complain that the residents should have a greater say in the future of the village.
Papadopoulos counters that it is the Limassol town planning department, not he, that gives permission for new buildings while the forestry department has to give its consent before a single tree is cut.
Platres’ challenges might seem overwhelming, but there is at least one woman who has made a successful return home.
Chara Michaelidou, 28, manages one of the very few successful hotels in the region, the Semiramis, and stresses the importance of the simple life in the mountains. “We grow our own tomatoes, vegetables, we have eggs, cherries and apples which we use and sell,” she said.
It was risky to move up from Limassol, which she did last year. But her family comes from Platres and she felt it was important that young people help the older ones, who get little money or any other support from the government.
The small 118-year-old hotel with its view of Platres’ famous trees was renovated in 2006. Its ten rooms are booked all year round.
The hotel garden is just about the most peaceful spot a visitor could hope for. She enjoys it herself so much that she can say with a calm confidence that she hasn’t regretted the move from the busy coastal town.