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Turkish tourism sector scrambles to minimize fallout of Ukraine war

Bracing for a big loss of Russian and Ukrainian holidaymakers this summer, Turkey’s tourism industry is looking for replacements in Europe and the Middle East. But few are hopeful that the gap can be closed.
Prepared sunbeds sit empty at a luxury hotel on March 9, 2022, in Antalya, Turkey.

Turkey’s tourism industry, a vital hard-currency earner for the country, is scrambling to boost tourist flows from Europe and the Middle East, desperate to minimize the damage it faces from the prospective loss of millions of Ukrainian and Russian holidaymakers this summer.

Tour operators hope to attract larger numbers of holidaymakers from European countries, chiefly Germany, and capitalize on Turkey’s recent fence-mending quest in the Middle East to lure more Arab and Israeli tourists, though few have illusions of fully compensating for the damage. Russians and Ukrainians accounted for some 23% of foreign visitors to Turkey last year. Russians were the largest group, numbering some 4.7 million, while about 2 million Ukrainians were the third-largest group after Germans. 

Reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic and the country’s own economic woes, Turkey’s tourism sector was hoping to rebound to pre-pandemic levels and generate at least $35 billion in revenues this year, up from $24.5 billion in 2021 and on par with its revenues in 2019 before the pandemic hit. Hard-currency revenues are crucial for Turkey’s ailing economy in the wake of the severe depreciation of the Turkish lira — the main driver of galloping inflation that hit 54.4% in February.

The Ukrainian market is considered all but lost this year due to the Russian invasion of the country, while the number of Russian tourists is expected to reach a mere 2 million at best amid a barrage of Western sanctions that have disrupted international air traffic and payment networks and hit the purchasing power of Russians. Since Turkey has not joined the sanctions, speculation has been rife on possible workarounds to circumvent bans affecting air travel and payment systems. Charter flights — the primary means of transporting Russian tourists to Turkey — remain the biggest problem, even as Turkish Airlines, the national flag carrier, has continued to fly to and from Russia.

Turkish tour operators will try to bridge the gap with tourists from Europe, the Balkans, the Middle East, and the Turkic republics of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, the head of Turkey’s Travel Agencies Association (TURSAB), Firuz Baglikaya, told the daily Yeni Asir last week. “Efforts have intensified in countries such as Germany, Poland, Romania, the Netherlands, Moldova and Lithuania,” he said, noting that the said countries were among the top 10 sources of holidaymakers for Antalya, Turkey’s main holiday hub on the Mediterranean coast. 

According to Huseyin Baraner, a veteran of the Turkish-German tourism sector, 400 German tour operators and media representatives are scheduled to visit Antalya in April as part of an extensive promotion campaign to increase the number of German holidaymakers, which stood just over 3 million in 2021. “We aim to bring 4.5 million [German] tourists this year,” he told the daily Cumhuriyet.

As for the Middle East, “The Iranian market has an important potential to grow,” Baglikaya said. “We should strive to bring [more] tourists also from Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia — countries with which bilateral ties have improved in recent times,” he added.

Ismail Yitmen, the owner of an Istanbul travel agency that works mainly with Russians and Ukrainians, told Al-Monitor that his agency was looking to the Arab market now, even though it had no such plans before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “We recently got about 100 bookings for April and May, and we are planning to bring 3,000 Arab tourists by November,” he said.

Reconciliation moves between Turkey and Israel, which culminated in a visit by Israeli President Isaac Herzog March 9, have boosted hopes that the flow of Israeli tourists to Turkey could be revived and increased. 

Hakan Sahin, who works at an Antalya travel agency with a long experience in the Israeli market, said that bookings from Israel were up by 20% compared to the pre-pandemic 2019. Judging by the increase, the agency estimates it could bring in at least 50,000 Israeli tourists this year, he told Al-Monitor. 

According to TURSAB statistics, about 492,000 Israeli tourists visited Turkey in 2019, the largest number since 2010, when bilateral ties plunged into crisis over an Israeli raid on a Gaza-bound Turkish ferry packed with pro-Palestinian activists that claimed 10 lives. In a further blow to tourism, a suicide bomber blew himself up near a group of Israeli tourists in the heart of Istanbul in 2016, killing three from the group and another person.

Sahin noted that Istanbul bookings for large Israeli groups were resuming after a long while, which he attributed to the improving climate between the two countries. “The information we are getting from our Israeli counterparts and the booking numbers so far make us happy,” he said, noting that Israeli tour operators expected a significant spike in travel to Turkey this year.

Mehmet Gem, the chair of the Association of Travel Agency Executives, pointed out that even if Turkey manages to replace Ukrainian and Russian tourists with visitors from other countries, that would not necessarily mean corresponding compensation in terms of revenues. Russians and Ukrainians, he explained, visit Turkey predominantly for sun and beach holidays, which bring in the highest revenues in the sector, while many of the hoped-for substitutes come for sightseeing and cultural tourism. 

Gem called on Ankara for incentives to prop up the tourism industry. “Hotels [in coastal areas] have postponed their opening from late March to late April, waiting to see how things will transpire. Without government plans to protect the tourism sector, we can expect a big crisis,” he told Al-Monitor.

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