Syria's Crisis Is Killing Off Trade In Turkey's Borderland Bazaars

Before the crisis in Syria, hundreds of shuttle taxis and buses would bring Syrian shoppers to the bazaars of Antakya in Turkey. But Fehim Genc reports that 20 months into the uprising, Turkish merchants are feeling the pinch as trade dries up.

al-monitor A shoe-shiner waits for customers in the border city of Kilis, southeastern Turkey, Jan. 13, 2012. Photo by REUTERS/Umit Bektas.

Topics covered

turkish-syrian relations, turkish-syrian trade relations, turkey, syrian crisis, syrian-turkish relations, refugees, hatay province, economic, business

Oct 31, 2012

Before the crisis in Syria, the rapprochement between Turkey and Syria changed the fate of Hatay. Every day, 30 to 40 busloads of Syrians and 200 shuttle taxis were bringing throngs of shoppers to Antakya.

With all this trade boom, Antakya was rejuvenated. But now there is not a single bus or a single shuttle.

On the eve of [the Muslim holiday of] Eid al-Adha — traditionally a lucrative shopping period — Antakya’s streets were empty.

Mehmet Acikgoz, who has owned a clothing shop for 48 years, says: “There can't be more unemployment than this.”

He adds: “It’s not just the foreigners; even Turks are not shopping anymore. Everyone is worried when we see deployments of tanks around us. We used to have customers coming from Jordan and Lebanon. They also stopped coming. Our trade has dropped by around 70%. We have only one or two customers per day. There used to be shuttles to Aleppo every 15 minutes. The Syrians used to shop to amounts of 1,000-1,500 Turkish Lira [$557-$836]. Sometimes a single person would spend our weekly revenue.”

One shopkeeper said he has not renewed his stocks for the past three months because he can’t sell what he has. He said in the past there were around 20 to 30 buses a day coming from Syria.

“If 10 of the 40 people in one bus shopped with us, we were satisfied with our income. The shops used to be packed. Syrians found Turkey cheaper than their own country. We hope Syria and Turkey will improve their relations soon. Before the civil war, I used to renew my stocks weekly, yet I haven't renewed my stocks for the past three months,” he says.

Mehmet Ural, a blanket seller says: “I used to sell around 500-600 blankets daily. This year I sold 500 blankets in a whole year. Everybody is terrified and worried whether there will be a war between Turkey and Syria. The Syrians who settled in our towns and villages don't have any money so that they don't contribute to economy at all. They shop only for food stuff.”

He also notes that this local stagnation due to the loss of trade between Turkey and Syria affects the whole of the Turkish economy: “We buy the goods from Istanbul. Since we don't buy any goods from Istanbul anymore, the production there slowed down. Production centers like Istanbul and Bursa used to sell us products as much as they export to foreign countries. We were their indirect exports,” he says.

Up to 80% of freight in Turkey is carried by trucks. Hatay, with 7,600, is the province that has the highest number of [trucks] after Istanbul.

Since the closure of the border, freight operators are on the brink of bankruptcy. When the border was open, it was possible to deliver goods to several Middle East countries in eight to nine days; the time has now been extended to 30 days.

Transporters are hoping for large ferries to [transport goods] to Aqaba [in Jordan] and Haifa [in Israel]. With this it will be possible to reach Aqaba and Haifa from Iskenderun or Mersin within 18 hours. 

Mehmet Oflazoglu, who owns a used truck company, says no one is interested in buying trucks.

“Every company wants to sell their trucks but there are no buyers. In the second-hand market, prices dropped around 15,000 to 20,000 Turkish Lira [$8,362 to $11,150],” he says.

Oflazoglu says those who purchased their trucks with bank credits suffer most.

“Those without debt are better off, those who work for Europe and Iraq are doing OK. However those who are just getting started, or those who purchased their trucks with bank credit, are having a difficult time. Even if you don't use a truck, you have fixed costs of around $1,000 per month due to insurance costs or the salary of the driver,” he says.

We are strolling through the market place at what is supposed to be its busiest time. We see shopkeepers playing backgammon. We say, “It doesn’t seem like there’s much business.” Shopkeepers agree and make bitter jokes.

A shopkeeper who sells stoves says, “Our customers were not Syrians, but even for us business has slowed down.”

Boutique owner Ahmet Alic says, “The Syrians don't come, yet due to these incidents our own people also aren’t shopping here either.

“I couldn't sell a single item today. The situation here is terrible. Syrians rejuvenated the shopping in the market. We already lost them. But our own people are also having a difficult time and they are reluctant to spend money,” he adds.

Hikmet Cincin, head of the Commerce and Industry Chamber of Antakya, urged the government to apply tax exemptions in the region: “What we dream of is not the instability in Syria and Lebanon, but Arab-Israeli peace. We want to take our trucks from here and drive all the way to Tel Aviv. We want to trade, sell our products, and spend our holidays in the region. The European Union project was this kind of dream. I have never lost my hope that we will realize this dream in our region.”

Nuri Canson, a driver who was taking a nap in the bus station, says shuttles are canceled.

“There is a war out there. Who would want to visit Syria now? Who would endanger their life?” he asks.

Before the civil war, besides buses there were also taxis going to Aleppo and Latakia. Two hundred cabs used to take people to Syria for 50 Turkish Lira [$28] per person.

Taxi driver Cemal Hacibey tells us for months he didn't use his car. Asked whether if had a customer now, how much would he charge, he replies, “I charge 25 Turkish Lira [$14]. But I would only drive until the Cilvegozu border crossing!”

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