AYIA NAPA, CYPRUS — It is midnight Saturday, and the neon-lit central square is heaving with rowdy young people. Nightspots pump out a cacophony of rock, pop, house and garage music. Fast-food outlets brim with customers. The balmy night air is a soup of perfume and after-sun lotion.
Welcome to Ayia Napa, the gaudy but good-natured party town on Cyprus's southeast coast that has become the dance capital of Europe, overtaking the more established Spanish island resort of Ibiza, with which it is often compared.
It is an uneasy transformation, for while holiday revelers feed Ayia Napa's economy, their conduct sometimes offends residents of this conservative former fishing village. Ayia Napa - like Taormina, Italy; Cabo San Lucas, Mexico; Santorini, Greece and other once sleepy locales discovered by tourists - has become a place where foreign and local values sometimes clash.
"Things are out of control in some ways," says the Rev. Panayiotis Papageorgiou, the town's soft-spoken, energetic priest.
Just three decades ago Ayia Napa was a sleepy place, home to just 100 souls. These days only a few hundred Cypriots, most of them involved in the tourist industry, live in town, and they are vastly outnumbered by the tourist hordes.
Many of the original inhabitants live in plush villas outside town, having sold their land to developers in the building boom that followed the 1974 Turkish invasion, when overnight little Ayia Napa ascended as the replacement for the resort of nearby Famagusta, which ended up behind Turkish lines.
At Ayia Napa's heart stands a picturesque 16th-century Greek Orthodox monastery with a pretty, cloistered courtyard. It was once a retreat for those seeking a contemplative, celibate existence away from worldly temptations. Now it is surrounded by pubs, clubs and self-catering hotel apartments packed with party animals, most of them from Britain, the island's former colonial master.
On a late Friday evening, Fr. Papageorgiou, whose church is next to the monastery, says midnight mass, which is broadcast outside by speakers. The solemn chanting clashes with the cacophony from the nearby nightspots.
It is not just the easy morals of a seductive pop culture that may threaten his flock, says Papageorgiou. Long hours spent working in the tourist industry have broken up marriages and limited the amount of time parents can spend with their children. The priest's concerns are shared by many Ayia Napans as they struggle to strike a balance between making a good living and conserving traditional family values.
Tourism is the engine of the booming Greek Cypriot economy, and a record 2.7 million vacationers are expected this year, a figure more than three times greater than the Greek Cypriot population.
A series of lurid stories in the local press about the vulgar behavior of young tourists provoked an uproar this month.
"Are young people incapable of enjoying themselves without the sort of excesses that lead to court cases and gross public indecency?" the English-language Cyprus Mail wondered, while another newspaper asked: "Ayia Napa - out of this world or out of control?"
Papageorgiou, an open-minded man who spent 16 years in the US studying chemical engineering before earning a PhD in theology, does not despair but relishes his assignment. "I thank God for giving it to me. It is an important mission. The Church is an ark of salvation in this storm. It will be here well after the people get tired after all that outside."
Certainly if you scratch beneath the island's modern, freewheeling surface, it is clear that a deep-rooted conservatism underpins Greek Cypriot society, with the church still playing a large part in most people's lives. Take "M.C. Pete" Eftychiou, the master of ceremonies at one pub. "Yes, I am religious," he says. "I go to church when I can." Like many locals, he is appalled by how much alcohol young tourists consume and also worries that some holidaymakers are bringing in drugs. "You don't need drugs to get high here. In Ayia Napa you get high on the atmosphere," Mr. Eftychiou says.
Across the island, 62 ecstasy pills were confiscated last year. By the end of July 2000, 1,471.
Authorities have instituted a zero-tolerance policy, imposing heavy fines or custodial sentences for possession of even small amounts of narcotics. They are supported by most club and bar-owners, who cooperate with the police.
"I have two young girls, and I don't want my children growing up in a society with drugs," explains Chris Christou, the co-owner of a bar.
Many say, however, that it is actually only a small minority of tourists who misbehave.
The problems may be magnified by Ayia Napa's sudden prominence among resorts. Drunken brawls and other incidents that would probably go unreported at other European resorts are picked up by the British press precisely because Ayia Napa has become so trendy.
"The media are trying to present Ayia Napa as the Sodom and Gomorrah of Cyprus," complains Elias Asprou, president of the resort's Leisure Centre Association. "It is still a quiet and safe place with lovely beaches and friendly people."
Nevertheless, Papageorgiou has written to the island's attorney general, police and members of parliament to focus attention on the problems. He also organizes summer camps "with a religious outlook, that instill some values" where parents can send their children.
While town authorities say reports of public disorder are exaggerated, they are nonetheless mulling calls to establish a tourist police force for Ayia Napa, one that they envision as being specially trained, multilingual, low-key, and friendly.
"Tourists have to realize this is not a lawless place," Papageorgiou says. "If they knew they would be arrested if they took their clothes off in public, they would not do it."
And locals must also share responsibility, he adds: "What saddens me the most is we have seen these things happening for a long time, and some people are putting their heads in the sand."
Papageorgiou says those who have prospered from tourism often change as they reach their mid-30s and have children. They worry about the world they have created for future generations and seek spiritual sustenance.
The priest tells of people - perhaps depressed after overindulging, and weary of superficial lifestyles - who drift into his church for solace: "I have had people who are part of all that hedonism coming in here and crying in front of the icons."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society