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Intel: Turkey's tourism sector sets hopes on June kick start

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's announcement that the government aims to relax COVID-19 restrictions and start returning to normal life at the end of Ramadan has raised the hopes of the country’s ailing tourism sector.
Tourists wearing face masks sit and stand on Galata bridge in Istanbul, on March 13, 2020, amid the outbreak of COVID-19, the new coronavirus. - Turkey said on March 12 it would shut all schools for two weeks and bar spectators from football matches through April after recording its first case of the new coronavirus. The death toll from the coronavirus pandemic has risen to 5,043, according to an AFP tally based on official sources at 1100 GMT on March 13. Since COVID-19 was first detected in December 2019,

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on April 21 announced that the government aims to relax COVID-19 restrictions and return to normal life by the end of Eid al-Fitr, the feast marking the end of Ramadan, fueling the hopes of the country’s severely ailing tourism sector.

Why it matters: Leading figures in Turkey's tourism industry have been pinning their hopes on a kick start to tourist season in June, after the monthslong imposition of international and national COVID-19 restrictions that have paralyzed the industry. Remarks by Erdogan on April 20-21 give them additional reason to hope. In Turkey, Ramadan starts April 24, and the Eid al-Fitr begins May 24. 

“Ensuring strict adherence to the measures throughout the month of Ramadan, hopefully we can ensure the transition of our country to normal life after the feast,” Erdogan said on April 20 in a televised speech after a Cabinet meeting. The president reiterated his commitment the following day in a televised address to members of his Justice and Development Party, suggesting that lockdowns and some restrictions on travel could be loosened by the end of May.

Tourism is a major pillar of the Turkish economy. The sector broke a record last year, bringing in almost $35 billion in revenues. More than 1.5 million people make a living from tourism.

Before the coronavirus pandemic shredded all semblance of planning, the government’s goal had been to double tourism revenue in 2020. 

By the end of March, two weeks after Turkey registered its first coronavirus case, almost all international bookings had been canceled. Domestic tourism came to a halt after internal flights were grounded, and 31 provinces around the country were put under lockdowns as part of the containment effort. 

What’s next: The Turkish government plans to focus first on reviving domestic tourism and then extend that effort toward encouraging international travelers to come visit. 

The Tourism Ministry has launched an initiative to attract tourists potentially wary of traveling due to the coronavirus outbreak.

“We have initiated a new project to certify coronavirus-free zones,” Culture and Tourism Minister Mehmet Nuri Ersoy told NTV on April 18. The zones will be designated along the coast. The initiative, Ersoy said, will also involve training and educating workers in the industry, such as hotel and transportation staff, about the coronavirus, proper social distancing, and so on.

The Turkish government has long been criticized for prioritizing the economy over public health. Defying widespread calls for a national lockdown, Erdogan earlier this month had emphasized that Turkey needs to “keep the wheels turning” on the economy.

Meanwhile, warnings by experts highlight the dire consequences of reopening the tourist trade before the coronavirus outbreak is completely contained. Most of Turkey’s tourist hotspots and coastal towns lack full-scale health care services, with only limited intensive care units.

Turkey currently has the highest number of coronavirus infections in the Middle East, with more than 95,000 cases, according to the Health Ministry. The death toll from the virus stood at 2,259 as of April 21. 

Know more: Read Mustafa Sonmez's article on how the coronavirus outbreak has further crippled Turkey’s already struggling economy and Diego Cupolo's examination of why experts and scientists pressed for a nationwide lockdown in Turkey.