Fewer tourists in Turkey after blasts
Istanbul - On approach to Istanbul Ataturk Airport with his passenger plane in March, a Turkish Airlines pilot was surprised to be told by air controllers that there was no congestion and that he, therefore, did not have to wait in a holding pattern over Turkey’s metropolis before landing.
“I have never seen Istanbul as empty as this,” the pilot said over the radio, according to media reports. “We’re surprised ourselves,” an official from the tower replied.
After years of a tourism boom that produced steadily rising visitor numbers and billions of dollars of revenue every year, the Turkish tourism industry is in crisis. Terrorist attacks, the conflict in neighbouring Syria and a row with Russia are scaring off visitors. “It’s drastic,” one Istanbul tour guide said. “Some companies haven’t paid wages for months.”
The tour guide, who declined to be named, said that in normal years a bus loaded with more than 30 foreign holidaymakers would leave Istanbul for a tour of Anatolia every day. “This year, it’s about two buses per week with about 12 people each,” he said.
A string of bomb attacks shattered Turkey’s image as a safe holiday destination. A suspected suicide bomber of the Islamic State (ISIS) killed three Israeli tourists and one Iranian on Istanbul’s Istiklal Caddesi shopping area in the heart of the metropolis on March 19th. Following the attack, many tourists left the country, news reports said.
In January, another ISIS member set off explosives amid a German tour group in Sultanahmet, Istanbul’s old town, killing 12 visitors. Last October, two ISIS supporters moved into an Ankara political rally and exploded bombs that killed more than 100 people. Kurdish suicide bombers are thought to have been behind attacks in Ankara on February 17th and March 13th, killing 28 and 37 people, respectively.
At the same time, Turkey’s relations with Russia, one of the most important countries of origin for the Turkish tourism sector, went into a deep crisis following the downing of a Russian warplane by the Turkish Air Force on the Syrian border last November. As a result, the number of Russian tourists arriving in the southern Turkish resort of Antalya dropped 81% in January, compared to January 2015.
Overall, the number of foreign tourists in Turkey decreased 1.6 % in 2015 to about 36 million. Analysts say 2016 will be much worse. TUI, the world’s biggest tour operator, reported a drop of 40% in bookings to Turkey. Cruise operators said their tours would not include stops at Turkish harbours this year.
Several organisations, among them the International Political Science Association (IPSA), cancelled conventions in Turkey due to security concerns. News reports said eight major conferences planned in Istanbul had been called off during January and February. Occupancy rates in Istanbul hotels have fallen to less than 50%. For the first time in several years, Istanbul welcomed fewer guests in January and February than in the same time period a year earlier.
The economic fallout of the crisis is making itself felt. In Marmaris, a resort town in south-western Turkey, about 70% of hotels are for sale as empty rooms mean owners cannot pay back loans, according to news reports.
As more hotels were put on sale, there was nobody willing to buy, Zulfikar Soyvural, chairman of an association of real estate agencies in Marmaris, told Turkish media. Investment bank JP Morgan said it expected tourism revenue in Turkey to drop by 15% in 2016.
Cetin Osman Budak, a senior lawmaker of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) representing Antalya, said the situation was dire. “Alarm bells are going off,” he said in February. In January, Antalya saw a 21% decrease in visitor numbers. For the first time in ten years, the number of foreign tourists arriving at the city by air in one month was less than 100,000.
The government in Ankara says it is helping the sector with a $78 million package that includes fuel subsidies for tour operators to make flights to Turkey cheaper. Some in the industry say this is not enough. The Chamber of Trade and Commerce in Antalya suggested that Turkey invite international pop stars such as Madonna, Jennifer Lopez or Justin Bieber to perform in the country in an effort to attract more visitors.
Some say tourists will return to Turkey when the situation in the country quiets down. Norbert Fiebig, head of the German Travel Association (DRV), said he expected an increase in bookings for Turkey. Germans have traditionally been the strongest national group among foreign tourists in Turkey, accounting for 5.6 million visitors in 2015.
The tour guide in Istanbul also said not everything was lost. “We are hoping for the autumn,” he said.