Kato Drys an experiment in experience tourism

By Martin Clark

More than 30 years ago the then CTO (Cyprus Tourism Organisation) realised that Cyprus could not always compete with likes of Spain, Croatia, France and Italy for sand, sea and cheap food drink holidays, and there was a push to draw tourists away from the honey pot sites on the coast and explore the beautiful interior of the island.

There followed some efforts to improve the mountain roads and get visitors up in the Troodos mountains. There was some success but not enough, and also areas like the Troodos forest park and Akamas are pretty fragile and not suitable for mass tourism.

Kato Drys is a famous tourist village in the mountainous part of Larnaca district and for almost 15 years now, they’ve been working with several European Union initiatives to get good advice and ideas from their European partners in the UK, Greece, Italy, Romania (they have a twinning with a beautiful Romanian mountain village in Transylvania’s Apuseni mountains), Germany, Bulgaria and Slovakia. Now, because of Brexit, the UK is not so much in the picture. But Kato Drys, through its innovative community council and muhktar, Nikos Vasiliou, still maintain and strengthen their European ties.

Late in 2023 Kato Drys was pleased to join a sustainable tourism project led by two Bulgarian partners; the Devetaki Plateau Association (DPA) have been shakers and movers in rural development for around 20 years and they brought nine villages together to give them a greater voice and more ‘people power’. DPA also developed an international jazz festival. The “Fengaros” music festival in Kato Drys has some synergy and Kato Drys works closely with Lefkara, Chirokoitia and Vavla to bring a stronger village voice into play. Tetra Solutions, the other Bulgarian partner are young, innovative and very digitally aware. We have been delighted to be influenced, also by Anna Kosma of Skarinou (former youth centre and community council) and her work with Larnaca tourism and the craftworkers of rural Larnaca.

The new project will run for two years and is called “Inherit” (Heritage Interpretation through Digital Storytelling for Experiential Tourism Development in Rural Areas) with Slovakian, Spanish (Catalonian) and Bulgarian partners. We will create digital touristic routes that are sustainable and draw on local culture and nature (which are often unrealised assets).

panayiota demetriou from kato drys is a wild food expert. she holds the ripe black berries of shino seeds seen in loukanika

Panayiota Demetriou from Kato Drys is a wild food expert. She holds the ripe black berries of shino seeds used in loukanika

Each partner works with ten stakeholders and has numerous target audiences including tourists jaded by the sun, sea and lager offers, digital nomads, Cypriots who have lost touch with their cultural routes, specialist orchid hunters and gastronomists. Our respective rural areas will be systematically analysed to understand resources, especially natural and cultural ones, and we will chart also the support offers: accommodation, gastronomy, transport and guiding.

It’s a chance to widen and modernise the tourism offer and draw much needed income into villages. Such detailed analysis of natural and cultural resources is commonplace for the Spanish (Catalonian) partner ‘Natural walks’, who have exported their methodology all over the world.

ophrys umbilicata

Ophrys umbilicata

twyblade orchid around kato drys, where a whole valley is designated as a 'special area for conservation' responsible orchid hunting has great tourism potential

Twyblade orchid

The final partner is Lisov Muzeum from Slovakia. Their staff undertook a lot of their training here in Cyprus through the EU’s ‘Leonardo da Vinci’ (education and culture) programme. Lisov became experts in making the best use of culture and nature and are really good at involving young people; in Slovakia they work with the youth parliament and represent the whole of Slovakia for the rights and voice of young people.

To give an example of the joined-up thinking of Inherit, the geology of Cyprus is rather unique (a lot of rocks formed by lava erupting under the sea, then uplifted). In few countries of Europe would you find limestone and basalt, side by side. The geology influences the soil and because of this Cyprus has massive biodiversity, but also the taste of local products is truly unique. The best tomatoes, cucumbers, halloumi, all this leads to a fantastic cuisine.

Nowhere in Europe can a visitor spot super rare orchids during the morning, do an afternoon of painting with natural pigments (the Romans and Leonardo da Vinci cherished Cyprus for its minerals) and eat a locally prepared meal in the evening which features wild plants, halloumi from shepherded flocks flavoured with local herbs, rice dishes which are particular to a certain village – and finish the whole experience with a local song, folkloric tale or poem. In Cyprus we have all of these things but we’re not using them.

Inherit is also about achieving the digital shift and using the best and most appropriate IT tools to inform a huge market of people just itching for unique and unforgettable holiday experiences. With our European friends, we will create a catalogue of tourist routes and itineraries that can be promoted all over the world to a massive untapped market of discerning would-be visitors that crave something original and unique.

In Cyprus, like most European states, villages are becoming depopulated and neglected. Yet they are beautiful bastions of culture and nature. Digitalisation can help villages fight back and bring young people back to the village streets.

Martin Clark (a professional forester and land manager) is director of Grampus Heritage & Training, the UK’s most successful EU wide vocational training organisation, with 28 years’ experience