Lavish wedding parties thrown by wealthy Indians at posh seafront hotels in Turkey have come to make headlines in the local media in recent years. Though Turks themselves are known as big spenders on weddings, the flamboyance of million-dollar Indian celebrations has fascinated the Turkish media, which often recounts the events in detail, from the glitzy decorations and colorful attire of the guests to the entertainment shows and passionate dancing.
Bunyat Ozpak, the manager of a tourism company working with Indian clients, said the target is to attract up to 30 Indian weddings per year to Antalya, Turkey’s main touristic hub in the Mediterranean. “Each wedding in Antalya is attended by 400 to 800 people, and the turnover of a wedding ranges between $1 million and $5 million,” Ozpak said. The Indian clients, he notes, “pay attention to everything, from the quality of accommodation and services to the sound and light system, the variety of entertainment bands, the sea, the beach and historical sites.”
The Indian wedding market, estimated at about $40 billion, is a relatively new discovery for the Turkish tourism sector. Backed by the Culture and Tourism Ministry, the sector is eager to grab a share of that market, especially now that it is struggling to recover from a serious crisis. In an important step to that effect, Istanbul in June will host the International Convention of the Wedding Fraternity, an annual event organized by Indian wedding planners.
Indian weddings may whet the Turkish tourism sector’s appetite, but former Tourism Minister Bahattin Yucel believes the expectations are overblown.
Yucel told Al-Monitor that any revenue from wedding hosting would be a modest one. “Portraying those weddings as a savior is a misrepresentation that hampers debate on the real problems in the tourism sector,” he said. “Indians have a tradition to hold weddings abroad, but they prefer the Maldives, South Asia, Europe and even Australia. Pinning too much hope on that looks like a reverie to me.”
Still, Yucel had a suggestion. “There are already direct flights between Istanbul and India, and they want to do the same for Antalya,” he said. “But shifting the weddings to Izmir would be more advantageous, as Izmir is Turkey’s bridal gown and jewelry hub. The best bridal gowns are made in and exported from Izmir,” he added, referring to Turkey’s third-largest city, located on the Aegean coast.
Turkish tour operators hope the weddings will also boost the flow of regular Indian tourists, whose number stood at only about 80,000 in the past two years, according to Emin Cakmak, the head of the Turkish-Indian Tourism Council. The target for 2018, he said, is to attract up to 200,000 Indian tourists to Turkey. While the average spending of tourists overall in Turkey is about $700 per person, Indian tourists spend up to 2,000 euros ($2,500) per person abroad. Given that 22 million Indians travel abroad each year, the target of Turkish tour operators remains quite modest.
Also, some may wonder whether Turkey’s close ties with Pakistan could hamper the flow of Indian weddings and tourists to the country, given the long-standing animosity between the subcontinental rivals. Yet while Pakistan is a “brotherly country” for Turkey, India is ahead in terms of links between peoples. Few Turks would go to Pakistan on touristic trips, but many flock to India, attracted by its exotic fabric, religious diversity and historical sites. Many Turks are fond of Indian cinema, music and dancing. For older Turks, the 1951 Bollywood drama "Awaraa" ("Vagabond"), starring the legendary Raj Kapoor, remains unforgettable, along with its touching soundtrack.
Take for instance Mahmut Tezer, a 64-year-old resident of Ankara who is readying for a trip to India in late February. “We are going to see the color festival [Holi] and visit the Taj Mahal,” Tezer told Al-Monitor. “As a child, I watched 'Awaraa' and I’ve been curious about India ever since. It’s a country I feel warmth for. From what I’ve read and watched about it, I got the urge to go and see it.”
A strong cultural bridge between Turkey and India was laid by Bulent Ecevit, who served several times as Turkey’s prime minister and was also a poet and writer. At age 16, Ecevit translated Gitanjali, the epic poem of Indian Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, from English to Turkish, and later, during a stint in Britain, Ecevit studied Sanskrit. For his first trip to India, however, Ecevit had to wait until 2000, when he was already a septuagenarian and serving his last term as prime minister. During the trip, covered by this reporter, he and his wife, Rahsan, an inseparable couple in both private life and politics, were deeply impressed by the Taj Mahal as they toured “the shrine of love” hand in hand. Ecevit died in 2006.
The Turkish affinity for India, to which Ecevit, no doubt, contributed, could play a role in developing tourism potential, but the prospects are not yet worthy of hype. Should Turkey host as many as 50 Indian weddings per year at an average price of $2 million per wedding, this means only $100 million in revenue.
The first Indian wedding this year took place in Antalya in early February and cost $1 million. A big wedding with 1,200 guests, among them Bollywood stars, is planned for April, according to Mustafa Onat, the manager of the company organizing the event. The program, he said, will include elements of Turkish culture such as a whirling dervishes show.
In terms of overall bilateral trade, Turkey has a big deficit with India. In 2017, Turkish imports from India amounted to $6.2 billion, while exports stood at only $758 million. To narrow the deficit, Turkey seems to need more than weddings.