In the mayor of the island’s liveliest resort THEO PANAYIDES finds a smooth-talking dynamo with a different vision of Ayia Napa, determined to turn it into a destination offering a Complete Tourism Experience
Ayias Mavris street in the centre of Ayia Napa is a street full of bars (though also, incidentally, the street where the Town Hall is located). There they are, the signs and shopfronts and enticements to drunken youth which have stood the town in good stead for several decades now. ‘12 Jagerbombs, 12 Spirits + Mixer: €20.’ ‘Special offers for hen and stag parties.’ Here’s a pub festooned with the inarguably true ‘It is better to be full of beer than full of shit’. There’s Pirates Inn at the top of the road, with its punning, pirate-themed plaques – ‘To err is human, to arr is pirate’ – which will surely mean nothing to Russian visitors, a reminder that Napa has built its reputation on UK tourism: Craig’s Bar, just before the Town Hall, has a Scottish theme, Taffy’s sports the Welsh flag, Paddy’s… well, you get the idea.
Also on the street, tacked up on a shop window, is an advertisement for ‘Karousos Beach Restaurant, Est. 1973’, located near the harbour and offering deals like a ‘Mediterranean platter for two persons’ at €34. The Karousos family have been prominent in the region for many years – they also own hotels, notably the Aeneas Resort – and Yiannis Karousos, mayor of Ayia Napa since 2013, admits as much, sitting in his office in the aforementioned Town Hall: “My background is tourism. I was born and raised in tourism”.
Yiannis is 38, burly and bearded with a receding hairline and what look like permanent bags under his eyes – and he’s also quite informal in his manner, refusing to stand on ceremony (he’s notorious for never wearing a tie). “Hello, Mr. Mayor –” I begin, but he waves me in briskly, switching straight to the familiar Greek form in addressing me. I suppose it’s hard to be pompous when your building is directly opposite Senior [sic] Frog’s Dance Bar & Restaurant, and a giant plastic frog eyeballs you from across the street every time you go to the window.
His desk is piled high with papers, so much so that we head to a narrow conference table for the interview. Half-hidden behind his In and Out trays, he could pass for a harried corporate accountant at a medium-sized firm – but don’t be fooled, he’s a powerful player. Napa punches well above its weight, contributing about 5 per cent of the total GDP of Cyprus (€700-800 million), and is currently being revamped to the tune of around €10 million in government funding. Party politics helps, the south-east being traditionally pro-Disy – “All previous governments, with the exception of this one, totally ignored Ayia Napa,” he fumes – but his own “assertive policy” and dogged personality also play a role. The phone rings often, though he mostly ignores it while we’re talking. “I’m going to send a letter to Town Planning, saying I’m against it!” he tells one interlocutor. “Get me a meeting with the president,” he tells another.
Yiannis talks fast, and mostly about Ayia Napa. Personal info is sparse: he studied Hospitality and Tourism at Surrey, followed by a joint MBA (jointly awarded by the French ESSEC and Cornell University), but always planned to come back to Napa. He’s been married since 2006 – though his wife likes to say he’s married to the Municipality, given how ceaselessly he worries away at the job – and has two children. He plays drums and guitar for fun, and used to play in a rock band of sorts, but doesn’t get time nowadays. He became a local councillor in 2007, then ran for mayor when his predecessor passed away unexpectedly; he’s since been re-elected with a hefty 65 per cent of the vote, his current term expiring in December 2021.
He also has a taste for the spotlight, or at least doesn’t shy away from public pronouncements. Just last month, in a Facebook post, he censured a local club-owner who’d made light of noise pollution by sending an angry neighbour a pair of earmuffs. (Noise pollution is no laughing matter, he chides, vividly comparing its effect to milking a cow – i.e. doing so much to improve Napa – then kicking away the bucket of milk instead of drinking it.) Back in March, he made headlines by sending a letter to tour operators abroad – the letter was published in The Telegraph – warning that “low-quality youth” tourism, meaning organised lads’ holidays for young men who want to get drunk and make trouble, was no longer welcome in Ayia Napa. Does he really think he can manage without them?
In response, he launches into his spiel – and indeed I know it’s a spiel, because halfway through we happen to switch from English to Greek and he repeats the exact same speech in a new language, word for word. “In 2013, when I was elected mayor, the first thing I did was to establish a vision for Ayia Napa and communicate that with all the stakeholders of the city,” he declaims. “The vision was – is! – to turn Ayia Napa by 2030 into the best and most cosmopolitan tourist resort of the Mediterranean. So we set out a strategy in 2013 and we started the implementation of this strategy, meaning it was time to upgrade Ayia Napa, plus to upgrade the nightlife of Ayia Napa because it does not represent what we believe is sustainable for the city. To do that we use a tool, we call it the ‘Complete Tourist Experience’.”
The details of the CTE are perhaps less important than the fact that a CTE exists (and can be recited, so he claims, by any random Ayia Napan, his vision having now become the whole town’s) – but a key word is certainly ‘landmarks’. “Because you’ll come for the sun and the sea,” he explains, ‘you’ being the average tourist, “but the sun and sea won’t bring you back. You need to have experiences. Things to see, things to do.”
Really? Isn’t it enough just to have a good time?
“No, that’s not sustainable to hold on to your tourism,” replies Yiannis (he’s the kind of smooth-talking dynamo who’ll toss around words like ‘stakeholders’ and ‘sustainable’). “So we’ve created various landmarks – like the sculpture park, the cactus park, the harbour sculptures, the Mermaid, the Fisherman, the love bridge, the eco-awareness centre at Cavo Greco, ‘Agrotis’ square. Landmarks!” he goes on, warming to his theme. “The ‘I love Ayia Napa’ sign in the centre… The beachfront that’s now being completed, [which cost] €6.5 million. Our monastery is about to be turned into an archaeological museum. Things to do! We basically want to transform Ayia Napa into a town of experiences, of parks and monuments. And landmarks. Not just the sun and the sea. In 2013, we had 400,000 arrivals in Ayia Napa. In 2018 we’re going to have about 650,000”. Not to mention the jewel in the crown: “We found an investor for the marina,” he says proudly, “which is going to be a world-class landmark. It won’t just be a marina but a landmark marina, with unique architecture. The investor plans to turn it into the finest marina in the Mediterranean.”
Various thoughts flicker through my head at the close of this impressive presentation. The first is that it’s slightly ironic that the Town Hall is located so close to the bars in the centre of town – because that nightlife, with its appeal to now-unwelcome yobs, is something of a fly in the ointment of this grand scheme. In fact, a battle is perhaps being fought (or about to be fought) for the soul of Ayia Napa, pitting the old Napa of cheap booze and tacky tourist restaurants with photos of the menu outside – what Yiannis calls “visual pollution” – against a new one of spa hotels, orderly beaches (now taken over by the Municipality) and structured itineraries. Hotels often mean ‘all-inclusive’ packages, of course, so tourists tend to stay in their hotel and not spend money in town – which is fine for hotel owners, less so for bar owners. That’s another potential divide.
The second, heretical thought is that no tourist is seriously going to come to Ayia Napa to see sculptures and visit museums – but Yiannis, predictably, has statistics to bolster his case. Despite its reputation as Party Central, only about 10 per cent of Napa’s tourists are under-25s, even though the bad impression created by some rowdy youngsters “is so negative that it threatens to drive away the other 90 per cent”. (It also discourages Brits from coming at all: only 8.5 per cent of British visitors to Cyprus stay in Napa, as opposed to 60 per cent of Scandinavians.) The resort already caters to plenty of other demographics: 1,500 weddings a year, 150 football teams coming down for winter training, senior citizens, families. Given those numbers, it shouldn’t be too hard to ditch the lager louts for higher-end tourism.
Indeed, it’s already happening. The re-branding of everyone’s favourite den of debauchery may seem implausible – “Yes, we’re proposing to apply for European culture capital of the year in 2030. And why not?” says Yiannis hotly, obviously fed up with people laughing when he moots the idea – but the point is to do the right things and make the right gestures. Tour operators don’t especially care if Ayia Napa’s ‘landmarks’ were created artificially by a canny mayor. All that matters is that they exist, meaning you can put them on the brochure, meaning you can persuade tourists that there’s more to Napa than gangs of young men being sick in the street.
“For the first time in 25 years, we’ve had Germans signing contracts for 40,000 tourists,” he enthuses. “A big company started direct flights from three German cities, for 40,000 people in the first year! I asked the CEO ‘Why now?’, he said ‘Mayor, we couldn’t sell Ayia Napa before. Now things have changed’.” Nor are the newly-built sights just a gimmick, hence this rather incredible story: Yiannis was in the Greek city of Ioannina recently, and a school bus stopped beside him. A teacher descended, having somehow recognised him, and said: “Are you the mayor of Ayia Napa? We come to Ayia Napa for the sculpture park, congratulations!”. The park contains 200 sculptures by 140 artists from all over the world, he informs me. A 2,500-seat amphitheatre is due to be built soon, depending on funding. The marina should be ready by next year. Roads in the centre of town will be upgraded. CCTV will be installed. Thousands of trees will be planted in the next two years, responding to criticisms that Napa isn’t green enough. The mayor’s ambition seems unbounded.
How uncritically can we take Yiannis Karousos? His account of life in Napa does seem slightly too rosy. He denies that drugs are a problem (at least among locals), which seems unlikely when they’re so widely available. He plays down social problems in general, despite what he admits is Napa’s “anarchic development” over the years. He praises the town’s multiculturalism – out of 56 first-year pupils in the local primary school, 34 have at least one foreign parent! – but surely a small village can’t mutate into a multicultural hub in a few decades without some serious identity issues.
In a way, Ayia Napa doesn’t really exist; it’s just shiny urban putty, to be moulded as its leaders see fit. (His metaphor of milking a cow seems oddly appropriate.) ‘Are the locals OK with the town’s character changing?’ I ask at one point, apropos of his grand vision – but Yiannis shrugs noncommittally. “But the character of Ayia Napa has changed. I mean, it doesn’t really have a character anymore. Does the centre of Ayia Napa have a character? They knocked down everything – they pulled down all the old houses, on the altar of money. We had old buildings, which could’ve been listed today and turned into something else – but they knocked them down. They destroyed them, back in the 80s. Did you know the mediaeval aqueduct ran right through the middle of Ayia Napa? They knocked it down, and built houses”.
The old Ayia Napa – not the Napa of Craig’s Bar and Taffy’s Bar but the real old Napa, the one of his parents and grandparents – is gone for good. Back in the early 70s, when tourists were a fraction of today’s numbers, Yiannis’ grandparents had an orchard down the road from the Nissi Beach; one day an Austrian couple wandered into the orchard, his grandma invited them for lunch – and a friendship was born which endured for many decades (“They must’ve come to Ayia Napa over 200 times!”), despite one couple speaking only Greek and the other only German. That kind of tourism – a human connection that had nothing to do with money – is never coming back. Is he nostalgic? “Look,” replies Yiannis smoothly, “in America they call it ‘shifting the paradigm’…”
Some might say the ‘Complete Tourist Experience’ is essentially an unworthy project. Maybe so – but it’s hard to argue with the drive of this youngish mayor. He’ll visit pubs at 2am to talk to tourists, or skip the office in the morning to carry out some on-the-spot inspection. He claims to have turned a deficit at the Municipality into a €3 million surplus, and raised its income by 70 per cent. He’s fallen out – he says – with friends and relatives by being unwilling to bend the rules. His plan is to put Ayia Napa on a par with Mykonos and Ibiza – though he also insists that he only wants two terms as mayor, maximum three; if you can’t get it done in 15 years, he says sternly, you might as well give up. And then what? He’ll only be in his late 40s, after all, and he is “a man who likes to contribute to public life”. Maybe an MP? Or even higher? Yiannis Karousos shrugs modestly, his lofty aims at odds with the come-ons and five-litres-of-alcohol-for-€10 offers on the bar signs around us.