A luxury holiday home on Saint Kitts and Nevis or Grenada in the West Indies might be useful for those looking to take advantage of those islands’ liberal tax regimes. But a passport acquired through Cyprus’s golden-visa scheme makes the bearer a citizen of the European Union, with all the benefits that accrue therewith. Moreover, there’s no requirement to reside in or even to visit Cyprus. The whole business, including acquisition of suitably priced real estate, can be carried out without ever setting foot on the island. The real estate doesn’t even have to exist yet—it can be completely virtual, just a computer rendering on a website. All for just 2 million euros, the minimum spend for the citizenship by investment.
As a result, Cypriot real-estate websites are filled with investment guides and details on how to apply for a new passport. This is the new era of virtual citizenship, where your papers and your identity—and all the rights that flow from them—owe more to legal frameworks and investment vehicles than any particular patch of ground where you might live.
Cyprus is a compelling location for such international games. Strategically anchored in the eastern Mediterranean, the island has long been a coveted and contested territory. Through the centuries, it has been occupied by Frankish crusaders, Venetian merchants, and Ottoman raiders. Since the Turkish invasion of 1974, Cyprus has been divided into two territories: the strongly Greek-identified but independent Republic of Cyprus in the south and west, and the disputed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus to the east. Another former colonial power, Britain, maintains its own legal and independent territories on the island, the Sovereign Base Areas of Akrotiri and Dhekelia.
Power has often roosted here, poised to prey upon nearby territories. At one end of the island, fields of satellite dishes at NSA/GCHQ’s Ayios Nikolaos Station keep a close watch on the Middle East; at the other end, across the bay from Limassol, U-2 spy planes and RAF Tornadoes bound for Syria and North Africa roar out over the sea. In the case of the Limassol towers, that power is wealthy Russian and Chinese investors with an eye on accessing the European Union. Meanwhile, older residents of the city find themselves cut off from the sea, their homes overshadowed, and most of the profits from the golden-visa scheme disappearing into the pockets of law firms, developers, and politicians.
Juwai, the Chinese portal, casts a wider eye than just Cyprus. Its website hosts a side-by-side comparison of various golden-visa schemes, laying out the costs and benefits of each, from the price of the investment to how long buyers must wait for a new passport to come through. Not all the schemes are created equally. Cyprus’s neighbor Greece has one of the cheapest schemes going, with residency available for just 250,000 euros. But that’s only residency—the right to stay in the country—not local, let alone EU, citizenship, which can take years to obtain and might never be granted. Sometimes the schemes have gone awry, too. Some 400,000 foreign investors in Portugal’s 500,000-euro golden-visa scheme have been left in limbo by bureaucratic collapse, waiting years for a passport which was promised within months. Chinese homeowners have been forced to fly in and out of the country every couple of months in order to maintain short-term visas, despite having paid thousands for property.