Bombs and political upheaval take their toll on Turkey tourism

Sunday 30/04/2017
Big blow. Tourists enter the Byzantine-era monument of Hagia Sophia as they pass by an armoured police vehicle in the Old City of Istanbul. (Reuters)

London - Bomb attacks, a failed coup, political upheaval and the war in next-door Syria have all hurt Turkey’s eco­nomically important tour­ism sector. Ankara is hoping that renewed stability and rock-bottom prices will tempt holidaymakers back and fill empty resorts and ho­tels.
Tourism makes up 13% of Turkey’s economy and helps support 8% of jobs, according to official statistics. The sector played a large part in Tur­key’s economic surge following a financial crash in 2001 that saw the currency dip to 1.5 million lira to the dollar.
The number of tourists visiting Turkey in 2002 was 13 million and rose to 40 million in 2015 while earn­ings from tourism went from $12.5 billion to $31.5 billion in the same pe­riod, Culture and Tourism Minister Nabi Avci said.
However, the fallout from the war in neighbouring Syria began to hurt tourism in the second half of 2015 with the first of a string of major suicide bombings, the resumption of the conflict with Kurdish rebels and a diplomatic dispute with Moscow over the downing of a Russian war­plane.
Moscow responded in November 2015 by cancelling charter flights to Turkey, a favourite destination for sun-seeking Russians. The number of Russians visiting Turkey dropped to 866,000 in 2016 from 3.65 million in 2015 and 4.5 million in 2014.
A failed coup attempt in July 2016, blamed by Turkey on followers of US-based Muslim preacher Fethul­lah Gulen, also had a large effect on tourist arrivals with numbers declin­ing sharply in the aftermath.
The 2017 World Economic Forum “Travel and Tourism Competitive­ness Report” ranked Turkey 116th out of 136 countries for safety and security, just above the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Overall, the number of tourists visiting Turkey fell 24% in 2016 com­pared to 2015, a drop of about 10 mil­lion visitors. Revenues in the same period fell 29% to $22 billion, the Turkey Statistics Foundation said.
The tourism slump has weighed heavily on the Turkish economy. Economic growth in 2016 stood at 2.9%, a figure hailed by ministers but questioned by many economists due to a new method of calculation that revised the number upward dramati­cally.
Government critics point to an unemployment rate that rose 10% in 2016 to 12.7% by the end of the year.
The number of empty shops has risen in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, one of the world’s most visited tourist attractions.
Carpet seller Erol Avci has worked in the bazaar for 39 years. “I started working here aged 18 and this is the worst it’s ever been,” the BBC quot­ed him as saying. “We’re down by 80% and are not making any profit, so I’m not drawing a salary.”
While Turkey and Russia back op­posing sides in Syria’s civil war, the two countries have repaired their diplomatic relations and Russian charter flights to Turkey resumed in August 2016. Arrivals from Rus­sia were 95% higher in February this year compared to the same month in 2016.
There have been recent indica­tions of an upturn in visitors from Europe, traditionally one of Tur­key’s biggest markets, with opera­tors cutting prices to remain com­petitive.
“After a slow start to the sea­son and a tough year in 2016, we’re seeing early signs that customers are beginning to go back to Turkey,” Peter Fankhauser, chief executive of Thomas Cook, one of Europe’s big­gest travel companies, was quoted as saying by the Daily Telegraph newspaper.
TUI, Europe’s largest travel com­pany, said its business to Turkey dropped 50% in 2016 but the decline appeared to have stopped.
“In normal years we had 2 million visitors to Turkey,” German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle quoted company spokesman Kuzey Alexan­der Esener as saying. “We still have a million customers for Turkey. It re­mains one of our top destinations.”
Turkey is also seeking to diversify its tourism sector away from the traditional “sun, sea and sand” holi­days and encourage travel for sport, the outdoors and health.
Some 750,000 health tourists vis­ited Turkey in 2016, the Hurriyet newspaper quoted Turkey Health Tourism Development Council Chairman Emin Cakmak as saying. About 60,000 of those, he said, come for hair transplants, a field in which Turkey has become a leading destination with cut-prices and all-inclusive package deals.
A government employment cam­paign begun in February offers incentives to tourism sector em­ployers that could help half of the 300,000 employees who would be laid off at the end of the summer season stay in their jobs, Hurriyet said.
“Unfortunately, the problems in tourism have mostly hit employ­ment in the sector,” the newspaper quoted Turkey Hoteliers’ Union Chairman Timur Bayindir as saying. “Since 2015 there has been a 40% loss of personnel…”