Dubai: On June 11, 2009, Bilal and his fiancée Rana (full names withheld) left to Larnaca, Cyrpus to hold their civil marriage ceremony. The Lebanese couple of different religious backgrounds flew back to Beirut the same day, married.
“Rana and I come from different religions, but not religious people ourselves. I’m Sunni and she’s Druze,” Bilal told Gulf News. The couple didn’t want to change religions and hold a religious wedding in Lebanon, so they decided to go civil.
Despite efforts by non-governmental organisations to legalise civil marriage in Lebanon, it remains off the political agenda, and couples like Bilal and Rana are forced to travel abroad to tie the knot.
This no-choice situation has turned Cyprus into the Las Vegas of the Middle East, where couples fly to get married. It has also opened doors for travel agencies in both countries to make some cash out of religiously mixed couples and those with a double nationality.
A civil marriage package to Cyprus can cost anywhere between $1000 and $5000, depending on how long the couple plan on staying on the island.
“Our package costs $1,900 per couple,” said Guendy Ragi, General Manager and owner of Nadia Travel, a travel agency based in Lebanon. The package includes everything from visa and ticket to the legalization and translation of documents in addition to a one night stay, Ragi said.
Nadia Travel arranged for 400 couples to hold their civil marriage in Cyprus last year, Ragi said. However, according to the figures that the agency obtains from the Embassy of Cyprus in Lebanon there were around 1,100 marriages from Lebanon in 2009 and around 800 marriages in 2008, Ragi said.
However, those numbers don’t solely correspond to inter-faith marriages, Ragi explained. That’s because some Lebanese couples who hold foreign passports need a civil marriage certificate to register their marriages abroad, he said.
“On a daily basis, we have a couple or two going to Cyprus for civil marriage, except for weekends of course,” he said.
Ragi said he started advertising for his civil marriage packages around four years ago. This year, he’s investing around $54800 in advertising for it. “Of course, it a business for me,” he said.
Although the agency doesn’t depend on civil marriages to make profit, it does make up almost 10 per cent of its business. “We’re talking about two couples a day, so it definitely contributes to my business,” he said.
That’s in addition to the family and friends that accompany the bride and groom. “There’s almost always someone traveling with them,” Ragi said.
However, it’s not only the Lebanese who are choosing the sunny island for marriage. Around 20,000 people from around the world pick Cyprus as their destination to say ‘I do’ every year, he said.
“The service has become efficient. Couples just go there and don’t need to do anything. They just have to say the wish that they want to get married,” said Hrach Kalsahakian, Sales and Marketing Manager at the Cyprus Tourism Organization. “In Cyprus they do all the formalities regarding the municipality.”
And indeed, it was easy for Bilal and Rana.
Their package was brought down to a $1000 after they decided to return to Beirut on the same day.
Greeted by a travel agency representative in Nicosia, the couple was escorted to the municipality where the ceremony took place. “While we were with the representative, he told us that everyday he has one or two Lebanese couples that he takes to get married,” Bilal said.
That was just one representative from one travel agency, so you can imagine how many other travel agencies do the same procedure, not to forget the Lebanese couples who decide to go on their own without the help of a travel agency, he said.
After providing all of the required documents, it took 20 minutes and they were married.
The Cyprus Tourism Organisation is also investing money in local Lebanese travel agencies to advertise for civil marriage wedding packages, Kalsahakian said. “It’s becoming an industry.”
According to figures released by the Cyprus Tourism Organisation, the number of Lebanese who went to Cyprus to get married in 2008 was 882, more than triple what it was in 1995.
It’s an investment that has paid off as it has increased the number of civil marriages by 15 to 20 per cent over the last year. “Cyprus is close; the travel agencies are specialized and the documentation is known,” he said. “And people would do anything to get married.”
$1,000: Cost of a wedding in Cyprus
800: couples from Lebanongot married in 2008
1,100: Couples from Lebanon got married in 2009
$54,800: Lebanese travel agent invested in advertising
20,000: People around world get married in Cyprus each year
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