Isolated for almost half a century, the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus has just opened a half-billion-dollar airport terminal in the hope of boosting tourism.
Only Ankara recognises the statehood of the TRNC, whose sole source of flights is Turkey, but the new terminal has left it dreaming of international connections.
Cyprus has been divided since 1974 when Turkey invaded the east Mediterranean island in response to a Greek-sponsored coup.
The northern third is inhabited by Turkish Cypriots, Turkish colonists and the military, while Greek Cypriots are the majority in the internationally recognised south.
United Nations peacekeepers patrol a buffer zone that divides the two parts of the sun-drenched resort island.
Its airspace is also split.
The International Civil Aviation Organization, a United Nations agency that coordinates standards in the sector, does not recognise the TRNC.
Mustafa Sofi, the north’s director of civil aviation, said it controls the northern part of the Nicosia Flight Information Region (FIR), as well as Ankara FIR under “special arrangement” for a total of 92,500 square kilometres (35,714 square miles).
Ercan airport and its new terminal, on the edge of north Nicosia, is “not recognised by the international aviation community” in accordance with UN resolutions, officials from the Republic of Cyprus Department of Civil Aviation told AFP.
The officials, who declined to be identified, said there is not even indirect communication with Ankara FIR since Turkey “cut the direct telephone line” after the invasion.
The Republic controls airspace only over the southern part of the island, whose Nicosia international airport is decaying inside the buffer zone, unusable since the invasion.
Larnaca hosts the main airport in the south, where aircraft bringing tourists land alongside a popular beach in the European Union member state.
– 10 million capacity –
Despite the international embargo, the TRNC does interact with the south.
There are nine crossing points for vehicles and pedestrians. Trade across the Green Line is increasing, according to the UN. The north’s turquoise waters, historic sites and attractive prices, thanks to the sinking value of the Turkish lira, help draw tourists.
Ercan’s new terminal is six times larger than the now-closed old one and “is an important step for our country which is going to bring touristic and economic development to a higher level”, the north’s tourism minister, Fikri Ataoglu, told local media.
Tourism provides crucial income for the north, whose economy relies on Ankara for support and, like Turkey, has suffered from soaring inflation.
Ercan’s new terminal and runway cost about 450 million euros ($485 million), Sofi said, and the airport could handle 10 million passengers annually.
“The capacity of the old terminal was 1.5 million but we’ve done four million,” he said.
The 10 million figure would be roughly equal to what Larnaca and the south’s second international airport at Paphos handled in 2022. Their traffic totalled 9.2 million last year, according to official figures.
Re-elected Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attended the opening of the spacious, modern Ercan terminal last month.
The departure hall, where some work remains to be finished, features duty-free shopping but the information screens show flights only to Turkish cities, by Turkish carriers.
Erhan Arikli, the north’s minister of public works and transport, told AFP he hopes international connections will begin in “one-and-a-half to two years”.
– Frankfurt, Paris, London –
That is not going to happen until a political solution is found to the division of Cyprus, said Stefan Talmon, a University of Bonn professor who has studied the Cyprus conflict for decades.
There have been no formal UN-sponsored peace talks for six years, and in a July report, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said “time is working against a mutually acceptable political settlement in Cyprus”.
The Republic of Cyprus seeks a solution on the basis of a bi-zonal, bi-communal federation in line with UN resolutions, but the TRNC insists on what it calls “sovereign equality and equal international status”.
This month saw the most serious incident of its kind in years when the United Nations accused Turkish Cypriot forces of assaulting peacekeepers and damaging UN vehicles as they tried to block construction of an “unauthorised” road in the buffer zone.
“What northern Cyprus is looking for is not direct flights from anywhere but direct flights from Frankfurt, Paris or London,” which would allow cheaper and easier tourist access to the north, said Talmon, a specialist in international law.
But as long as the international community “recognises the Greek Cypriot government in the south as the government of all of Cyprus, there cannot be any direct international flights to Ercan airport,” said Talmon.
“The legal situation has not changed over the past 50 years. One cannot fly to northern Cyprus without violating international law.”