Cyprus, located in the eastern corner of the Mediterranean and at the crossroads of three continents, has developed into a popular tourist destination. Its clean beaches, natural beauty, sunny climate and rare 9,000-year-old archaeological and cultural wealth, have combined with the traditional warmth and hospitality of our people and the excellent facilities and services offered to enable our country to attract about two million visitors each year.
Tourism in Cyprus is one of the most important sectors of the economy. In 1996, earnings from this industry reached $1.7 billion, representing about 40 per cent of the total revenue from the country÷s exports of goods and services. Tourism contributes approximately 21 per cent to the Gross Domestic Product, while about 35 per cent of our working force is employed, directly or indirectly, in the tourist industry. However, competition in the international tourist market is becoming very intense as other destinations appear on the tourist map.
In order to meet the challenges of this intense competition and the new developments in the tourist world, we need to differentiate and enrich our product, enhance the quality of our services and become more competitive pricewise. In this respect, we are actively promoting new forms of tourism, such as rural tourism or agrotourism, in selected mainland villages. The idea is to encourage the conversion of traditional houses for tourist use. Agrotourism is intended for visitors who seek to experience life in a rural community while at the same time engaging in various activities of their choice.
Nautical tourism is another form of tourism we promote, with the creation of new marinas and the upgrading of existing ones. For this purpose a masterplan has been prepared, which envisages the creation of four new marinas and the extension of the Larnaca Marina, which has been in operation since 1976. In a related field, we have introduced the European Blue Flag Concept with the objective of maintaining the quality of our beaches and within the framework of our policy of harmonisation with the European Union. Eleven beaches have already qualified and were awarded the European Blue Flag.
Sports tourism is also developing rapidly, and we plan to create three 18-hole golf courses besides the two we already have. Cyprus is also becoming a popular venue for Northern European football teams, which take advantage of the moderate weather and good facilities for their winter preparation. From January to mid-April, more than 350 football teams visit Cyprus for this reason.
Considering its size of only 9,251 square kilometres, the beauty of the island is unique. Cyprus has a rare variety of scenery consisting of an indented coastline with long sandy beaches in numerous coves, and a broad plain, stretching between the mountains of Pentadaktylos and Troodos, which are mostly covered with deep forests of pine and cedar. Cyprus also possesses an impressive spectrum of wildlife - rare and endemic species of flora and fauna and a healthy and mild climate, which, according to Fodor's Guide to Europe, is "one of the best climates in the world".
Besides its natural beauty, the country also has an enormous archaeological and cultural wealth, and a history which is one of the oldest recorded in the world, going back to the seventh millennium BC. The cultural heritage of Cyprus is indeed very impressive. There are ruins of ancient settlements, temples and theatres virtually everywhere. There are also fortresses, Byzantine monasteries, medieval castles, picturesque churches and a wealth of relics and treasures brought to light by the archaeological spade.
Recognising the island's historic role and contribution to European culture and civilisation, UNESCO has included in its World Heritage List the ancient town of Paphos and nine Byzantine churches in the Troodos mountains.
But Cyprus is not only a holiday destination - it has recently also become a conference and incentive destination. Apart from the International Conference Centre in Nicosia, top hotels have excellent facilities for conferences, business meetings, professional seminars and other activities, making Cyprus a successful conference destination and a regional business centre. Our high-tech telecommunications system is an important factor that helps this kind of activity.
Cyprus serves today as a bridge between Europe, Asia and Africa in various aspects, including business and commerce. The success of Cyprus as a regional international commercial centre has been reinforced and secured through the respect we enjoy from our neighbouring countries, international organisations and the European Union. There are a great number of offshore companies based in Cyprus and many international companies have their regional headquarters here.
Uniquely located at the cross-roads of three continents, Cyprus enjoys European standards in a relaxed atmosphere, meeting and satisfying the needs and expectations of its international clientele. That is why more than one third of our visitors are repeat customers.