With Ankara facing internal and external security threats, as well as tensions with Russia, Turkey’s tourism sector is paying the price.
In February, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called on citizens not to travel abroad for leisure and spend their holiday in their home country. His statement came at a time when Turkey’s tourism sector is suffering from the biggest fall in international inbound tourists to the country in a decade. So how bad actually is the state of Turkey’s tourism industry and what prospects lie ahead, in light of the country’s ever-growing security problems?
Following the end of the ceasefire between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Turkish government, Turks found themselves in the middle of a spiral of violence in 2015. Security risks in the country have only increased as a result of terrorist attacks carried out by Islamic State (IS) in major cities. Between July 2015 and March 2016, six major bomb attacks claimed the lives of more than 200 people, not to mention 700 who died in the ongoing armed conflict between the Turkish security forces and the Kurdish terrorist groups since November.
Add to these the downing of a Russian military jet in November on the Turkey-Syria border, which rapidly caused considerable damage to the country’s strong economic ties with Russia. Both countries had managed to maintain their deep-rooted trade relations until then, in spite of their pre-existing fundamental differences over the Syria crisis.
Turkey a major tourism destination
With nearly 37 million visitors in 2014, Turkey was until recently the sixth most popular destination after Italy, China, Spain, USA, and France. Likewise, its tourism revenue reached a peak with $34.3 billion that year, which accounted for 4.3% of GDP. Russians and Germans long constituted a significant share of Turkey’s international inbound tourists. According to official data, of the 36.8 million visitors in 2014, 5.2 million were Germans and 4.4 million Russians.
The last decade also saw the number of Arab tourists to Turkey skyrocket. Visitors from the Gulf and the Mashriq regions rose more than threefold from nearly a million to 3.3 million over the course of a decade. Considering that it is estimated that an Arab tourist spends on average three times more than a European or Russian tourist in Turkey, the rise in their number undeniably played a key role in Turkey’s increasing tourism revenue.
Not surprisingly, deteriorating security conditions within Turkey as well as in its immediate neighborhood have had serious consequences.To illustrate, even before Turkey shot down Russia’s jet in November, Russians had already begun eyeing other holiday destinations or opted to stay home in early 2015.
Turkey suffers due to geopolitical fallout
The number of Russians who visited Turkey in the first seven months of 2015 went down by half a million compared to the same period of the previous year. The situation only worsened after Russian President Vladimir Putin imposed economic sanctions on Turkey, which included a ban on sale of charter holidays for Russians to Turkey. Antalya, by far the most preferred Turkish destination by Russians, reportedly saw an 81% decrease in January bookings in comparison with January 2015. Similarly, the rate of reservation cancellations among Germans rose to around 40%.
As for the near future, Turkey’s security environment will likely cause ongoing challenges for the country’s tourism industry. As part of the U.S-led anti-IS coalition, Turkey continues to fight IS in Syria (even though questions remain over the government’s effectiveness in fighting radicalization at home). Furthermore, President Erdogan’s increasingly hawkish rhetoric signals that Turkey’s ongoing armed conflict with the Kurds both in Syria and domestically will not come to an end soon.
Consequently, Turkey is an obvious target for both Kurdish and radical Islamist terrorism. The fact that major cities like Istanbul and Ankara have been hit by terrorist attacks several times in the last few months also raises questions over the effectiveness of the intelligence services in preventing those bombings: (the February 2016 attack in Ankara was only 300 meters from the chief of General Staff and 150 meters from air force command).
The attacks in Istanbul on January 12th and March 19th had and will continue to have a particularly damaging effect on tourism, as those targeted two of the most touristic areas of the city. Most recently, on April 9th, U.S Embassy in Ankara has issued yet another emergency message for U.S citizens in Istanbul and the southern city of Antalya over credible threats to public squares and docks.
A mixed bag for tourism in Turkey
The Turkish authorities’ response to the challenges in question has yet to be proved effective. The Tourism Action Plan announced by PM Ahmet Davutoglu on February 22nd laid out immediate government measures including the provision of $86 million of grant-in-aid to the sector and a $6,000 subsidy per flight for Group A tourism agencies.
Moreover, the number of people visiting Turkey with the purpose of health tourism is still on upward trend. The medical tourism figures are unlikely to disappoint in the near future, since the bulk of them come from the Middle East. Furthermore, the strengthening of the economic ties between Turkey and Iran were reflected in tourism numbers as well. Re-launched last summer, flights linking Turkey’s southern coast to Iranian capital Tehran aim to boost inbound tourism from Iran, as Turkey received 1.7 million Iranian travelers last year.
Also, rather surprisingly, a recent tourism ministry report recommended that celebrities such as Jennifer Lopez, Madonna, or Justin Bieber should be booked for Antalya’s EXPO 2016 event later this month in order to attract visitors from abroad.
The government looks rather confident that the revenue loss will not be as consequential as initially estimated (the most pessimistic figure points to a loss of $12 billion). Although PM Davutoglu and his tourism minister have been working to keep the industry calm, Turkey volatile security outlook is unlikely to disappear in the foreseeable future. Thus, there is little hope that the sector will come full circle within the next couple of years.
On a brighter note, the worsening security situation has comparatively little impact on the number of Middle Eastern visitors to the country (Tellingly, Etihad Airways is even launching a new additional flight route this summer linking its main hub airport Abu Dhabi to Istanbul’s second international airport Sabiha Gokcen to meet the rising demand). Combined with the expected rise in revenues from health tourism, which purportedly brings $3 billion to the Turkish economy every year, and the marked increase in Ukrainian tourists, this may be able to compensate in part for sector losses this year.
While it remains to be seen whether Turks will follow President Erdogan’s vacation advice, there is little doubt that the nation’s tourism sector has a bumpy road ahead.