Around 400 people fleeing the violence in Lebanon, including the Saudi ambassador in Beirut, arrived on Cyprus this week.
But with the re-opening of Beirut international airport yesterday, fears of a mass exodus to the island were eased.
Since Saturday, 34 private yachts or speed boats have docked at Larnaca marina bringing people seeking a way out of strife-stricken Lebanon.
The first passenger ferry also arrived at Larnaca port yesterday with 50 people on board, most of them foreign nationals.
While hundreds sought safety on Cyprus, there was a minority trying to find a way back into Lebanon. This led to a spate of profiteering, which the authorities have sought to stamp out.
Cyprus began enforcing international shipping law to stop private yacht owners making illegal earnings out of people desperate to return Lebanon in the absence of normal flights.
Private pleasure boats were charging up to έ800 ($1,200) to ferry people into Lebanon from Cyprus, but officials say that shipping law forbids unlicensed craft being used for commercial purposes for safety reasons.
“A directive has been given to marine police that private boats can’t take passengers to Lebanon,” said merchant shipping department senior inspector Yiannis Karitzis.
“Pleasure boats for private use are exploiting the situation and charging Lebanese and other nationals… It’s not just a question of exploitation… We monitor issues of safety, ” he added.
For a week, Lebanon has been rocked by sectarian fighting in which at least 65 people have died after a government move against Hezbollah prompted the Shiite militant group to block access to Beirut airport.
Karitzis said those bringing people to Cyprus from Lebanon was not an issue because it came under the jurisdiction of the Lebanese authorities.
Students, businessmen and diplomats have fled Lebanon’s fighting for the safety of Cyprus only 210kms away.
Some boats were dropping people off before going back for more, while other people were docking at the marina for a short period in their luxury yachts.
People were either catching flights out of Cyprus or choosing to stay at top-notch hotels until the trouble subsided.
On Monday, Saudi ambassador to Lebanon Abdul Aziz al-Khoja and his family arrived at marina – under armed guard – and were escorted directly to Larnaca airport.
A large number of Saudis keep second homes in Lebanon and soon after the fighting erupted last week the Saudi embassy in Beirut launched a major operation to evacuate its nationals by road through neighbouring Syria.
Nicosia says it is closely monitoring the unrest in Lebanon and has drawn up contingency plans in the event that a new mass evacuation is required.
Civil defence and other officials met on Wednesday to review the island’s preparations to deal with a new influx of evacuees.
Schools, sports halls, community centres and hotels have been designated as makeshift emergency accommodation.
In 2006, more than 55,000 fled to the island after a devastating 34-day summer war between Israel and Hezbollah prompted Western governments to undertake a mass evacuation through Cyprus.
At its peak, the biggest sea evacuation since World War II saw more than 10,000 people arrive on the island in a single day as Britain, America, Canada, France and Australia scrambled to gets its nationals out of the war zone.
“We have plans for various scenarios and we are ready to implement them if needed but no country is advocating an evacuation at the moment,” said Foreign Ministry official Alexandros Zenon.
Recent fighting between supporters of the Western-backed government and the Iranian- and Syrian-backed opposition is, nonetheless, Lebanon’s worst sectarian violence since the 1975-90 civil war.
Back then, Cyprus became a second home to many Lebanese refugees.
“It seems these people are abandoning Lebanon for their own personal reasons, some are transferring to other countries or planning to stay here temporarily until the situation normalises,” said Larnaca marina’s general manager Michalis Filis.
“Those who choose to come to Cyprus are doing so with speed boats and yachts transporting around 10 people each and taking only five to six hours to reach the island.”
The Cyprus embassy in Beirut did advise its 800-odd nationals to get in touch and give details of their whereabouts just in case of an emergency.
Cypriots were also advised against travelling to Lebanon under any circumstances and Cyprus Airways had cancelled all flights until further notice.
LEBANON ARRIVALS: Hundreds of people arrived at Larnaca marina on luxury boats this week as they fled the troubles in Lebanon.
By Charlie Charalambous
newspaper: Cyprus Weekly