Arab Spring casts shadow on Turkish tourism

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Tourists walk in front of the Ottoman era Ortakoy Mecidiye Mosque and Bosphorus Bridge in Istanbul. Muslim but non-Arab Turkey has become a hot destination for Arab tourists and investors in recent years as Turkey has emerged as a regional power in the Middle East under Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan. Photo - Osman Orsal/Reuters

More than a year into Arab Spring, Turkey says political uncertainty and continued violence across the Middle East is hurting its tourism sector, which expects to welcome around 30 million visitors this year.

“The Arab Spring reflected both positively and negatively on Turkish tourism. Last year, some of the reservations from Egypt and Tunisia shifted to Turkey, as well as Italy or Greece,” Turkish Tourism Minister Ertugrul Gunay said while speaking to Reuters on the sidelines of a Mediterranean tourism conference in Tunisia. He added that his government was keen to promote regional tourism in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.

“But the most important thing is, because of the lack of a resolution in Syria, Turkey lost more reservations than it gained last year. In recent years, there have also been some political tensions between Israel and Turkey and this lost us some of the Israeli market as well.”

Turkey, which straddled Europe and Asia and was once the soul of the Ottoman Empire, opened its tourism destinations to visitors from Syria and other Arab nations after waiving visa requirements in 2009. The move came at a time when mass tourism from Europe suffered due to the 2008 economic crisis.

Ankara attracted 31.46 million tourists in 2011, an increase of almost 10%. Tourist receipts amounted to more than $23 billion.

In the first two months of 2012, the total number of foreign visitors was 1.98 million people, down 3.7% from the same period last year.

However, with the onset of armed uprising in Syria since March last year and post-revolution Arab economies grappling with political uncertainty and renewed violence, number of visitors coming from across the region have dropped.

Turkey, also a favourite destination for many Israelis, witnessed visitor numbers from the Zionist state dropped since relations between the two countries took an unprecedented turn in 2010 when Israeli forces illegally boarded a humanitarian ship that was taking aid to besieged Gaza Strip and killed nine unarmed Turkish activists.

The outbreak of violence between Bashar Al Assad’s Baathist government forces and armed opposition groups has forced more than 24,000 Syrians to seek refuge in southern Turkey. Bilateral trade between the northern Levant neighbours is also at an all time low.

The United Nations estimates suggest more than 9,000 people have lost their lives during clashes between Syrian security forces and rebels. Syrian authorities claim ‘foreign-backed militants’ have killed more than 2,500 soldiers, police and an unknown number of civilians opposed to the rebellion.

UN sent monitors to Syria last week who will observe the fragile ceasefire between the warring factions peacekeepers. Some activists insist Syrian forces were still engaged in military operations and violating the ceasefire in rebel-stronghold of Homs.

“What we want is peace in the region, in the Middle East and in all the world. The tourism industry develops in a peaceful atmosphere and it supports a peaceful atmosphere,” Gunay said.

“We have been known as a mass tourism country. We should continue this but supplement it with cultural, health and other types of tourism and our infrastructure is ready for this,” he added.

“For example, up to last year, the biggest mosaics museum was in Tunisia, in Bardo. Now the biggest is in eastern Turkey…. This year in the west near Izmir, we will also open the biggest conference centre in the eastern Mediterranean.”

The tourism minister hoped that more than 30 million visitors will visit Turkey in 2012 and forecasted that earnings from tourism will reach around $30 billion. Turkey’s tourism authorities insist they would like to reduce beach-based mass tourism and attract higher value visitors.

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