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Cyprus Airport: One-Stop Shopping for Soviets

Times Staff Writer

The Russians are coming! The Russians are coming! It’s enough to make a strong flight attendant tremble on the Video Express, Cyprus Airways’ thrice-weekly night flight to Tel Aviv.

Here in little Larnaca, thousands of miles from the big tent of President Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s glasnost circus in Moscow, an antic sideshow is played out in the departure lounge of Cyprus’ international airport.

Hundreds of transiting Soviet Jews, holding tourist visas to Israel under Moscow’s newly relaxed travel regulations, storm the duty-free shops clutching fistfuls of American dollars. “VCRs, minicams, radios--they’re buying everything,” said a clerk at the duty-free counter. “Many, many. Business is good.”

What they’re buying is gold back home. On the Soviet black market, a top-line videocassette recorder will bring many times the $400 laid out at the Larnaca duty-free shop. According to one estimate, two new Japanese-made VCRs are a fair trade for an apartment.

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Many of the tourists are poorly dressed and undereducated country folk making their first trip abroad, and they’ve traded a life’s savings for a packaged electronic marvel. They feel strongly attached to it.

Babushkas and VCRs

Ask the baggage and cabin staff of Flight 248 to Tel Aviv. Hell hath no fury like a babushka parted from her VCR.

“We put as many packages as we can in the overhead of the cabin,” said George Dheere, the Cyprus Airways manager at Larnaca, “but when that’s filled, the rest have to go into the cargo hold.”

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Often, push comes to shove. An agitated tourist, wailing in Russian, commences a tug-of-war with a determined, Greek-speaking baggage handler for possession of the treasure. Cyprus Airways has hired Russian-speaking staff to explain the procedures and sort out the differences, but with a hundred or more Soviet tourists on each flight, each clutching a duty-free package, a degree of pandemonium is inescapable. Flight 248 invariably leaves Larnaca up to an hour late.

“If this was an American flight, there would have been a riot by now,” observed one recent passenger, alluding to Americans’ impatience with airline delays.

On the Tel Aviv end, at Ben-Gurion International Airport, the scene is replayed as the baggage carousel wheels out small mountains of electronic goods--45 VCRs on a recent flight. There the Soviet Jews must again part with their goods, which are kept in a customs warehouse until retrieved for the return flight to Cyprus.

The tourists fly to and from Moscow through Larnaca, a 40-minute flight from Tel Aviv, because there are no direct Moscow-Tel Aviv flights. The Soviet Union and Israel, although improving their ties lately, do not have diplomatic relations. Soviet Aeroflot flights carrying the tourists to Larnaca are timed to connect with Flight 248. Going or coming, the Soviets, with few exceptions, never leave the Larnaca airport.

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The tourist program for Soviet Jews began about six months ago, and arrivals in Israel have reached a level of about 2,000 a month. The popularity of the program, and its unintended financial rewards, has packed Cyprus Airways’ Tel Aviv flights so full of Soviets that ordinary travelers have difficulty booking a seat. The airline has recently put some of its new wide-body Airbus jets on the run to ease the pressure.

For the Israelis, the program holds promise beyond the immediate boost in tourism. With Jewish immigration from the Soviet Union increasing under Moscow’s relaxed policies, the Israeli government is eager to give Soviet Jews a look at Israel as a place to settle. In recent years many emigrating Jews, declaring their intention to live in Israel, have chosen instead to seek homes in the United States and Western Europe.

Poignant Signs

There are poignant signs that the strategy might work. An American woman who flew Cyprus Airways to Israel recently was seated beside a young Jewish tourist. “He was standing on his seat most of the way,” she said, “and when we came over the lights of Tel Aviv, he started jumping up and down. ‘Israel?’ he asked, pointing out the window. ‘Israel! Israel!’ ”

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Arrival of the Larnaca flight brings a distinctively Russian flavor to the terminal at Ben-Gurion. Families of the tourists start gathering outside the terminal long before the scheduled arrival, which means even longer before Flight 248 touches down. Ranks of children carrying bouquets of flowers push to the front of the crowd to await their Soviet relatives, and a small band toots Russian folk tunes at the rear. Woe to the Western traveler caught between two long-separated Jewish family members bent on a Russian bearhug.

Their money spent in Larnaca, most of the visiting Soviets spend their time in Israel quietly with their relatives. They must pledge to return to the Soviet Union before leaving Moscow, and Israeli officials say only a handful have jumped ship under the program.

The return to Larnaca and the waiting Aeroflot flight resumes the videocassette tug-of-wars; this close to home, the tourists don’t want to lose sight of their booty again. But, with the usual delay, the Cypriots sort it out.

On the return flight a few weeks ago, an old woman clutching her Soviet passport, having survived the rigors of baggage and boarding, sat momentarily at peace. The plane was jammed with returning Russians, including three towering Russian Orthodox priests, who had apparently gone to Israel on religious matters.

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One of the priests sat beside her, leaning a heavy wooden clerical staff against the seat in front. On takeoff, it fell backward, conking the woman on the head. She smiled thinly; it was a minor inconvenience for someone who undoubtedly had a VCR in the cargo hold.


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