Turkey’s tourism revival halted mid-flight by war

Like every Sunday, Noori Sani welcomes her old friends around a kahvalti, the generous Turkish breakfast. But around him, the tables on his terrace are empty, his restaurant…

View of Istanbul, February 16, 2022 in Turkey (All rights reserved. © (2022) Agence France-Presse – Ozan KOSE)

Like every Sunday, Noori Sani welcomes her old friends around a kahvalti, the generous Turkish breakfast. But around him, the tables on his terrace are empty, his restaurant at the foot of the Blue Mosque, deserted.

Tourists in a restaurant in Istanbul, February 4, 2022 in Turkey (All rights reserved. © (2022) Agence France-Presse – Bulent KILIC)

“We should fill up one day like that… And it’s worse in Antalya (seaside resort in the south) say my friends,” sighs the boss of Serbethane, in the historic district of Istanbul.

Within days, Ukrainians disappeared and Russians began to cancel their reservations: the echo of the war blows a bad wind on tourism in Turkey, which represented 10% of GDP before the pandemic and was just beginning to s rise to it, with great prospects for the 2022 season.

In front of the mosque (ex-basilica) Sainte-Sophie, groups of Russian tourists are still advancing with a hurried step behind their guide, their heads in their shoulders, declining any interview.

But of Ukrainians, we only come across stranded visitors, like this young couple from Kiev « who arrived as tourists and turned into refugees », who tearfully sought to leave the country for a third destination – « perhaps the United States? « .

Visitors from the two countries alone, who have made Istanbul and the Turkish beaches of the Mediterranean (south) or the Aegean Sea (west) their favorite destination, represented more than a quarter of the tourists welcomed in 2021, according to the Ministry of Culture and Tourism.

The Russians (4.5 million) in the lead, ahead of the Germans, and in third place the Ukrainians (2 million).

“Russia and Ukraine are very important for our market. The war that broke out between them makes us all nervous here, both for human and commercial reasons,” Hamit Kuk, head of the Association of Travel Agencies of Turkey (Tursab), told AFP.

“We were expecting 7 million Russians and 2.5 million Ukrainians this year… but we will surely have to review these figures”, he warns.

“Usually, he explains, reservations for the summer flow in March. But the requests stopped.

– unpaid slips –

“If it continues like this we will have a serious problem”, confirms in turn the president of Tursab. « We try to stay as calm as possible. »

But in his small agency which faces Sainte-Sophie, Ismail Yitmen is already overwhelmed.

“Agencies that work with Russia like mine are suffering,” he says, nervously sorting through slips of unpaid reservations.

“With the security deposits left with the hotels, I am already at more than 11,000 euros lost. If other groups come to cancel I will lose 60 to 70,000 euros in total, ”he fears.

“A group was supposed to arrive in two months but we haven’t received the money because of the stoppage of SWIFT (international) bank transfers, so it’s cancelled. But we had already paid for the hotels”.

Russia is subject to European and American sanctions which deprive it of access to international financial transactions and to European skies.

Only Turkey, which although a member of the Atlantic Alliance has not joined the sanctions, retains air links with Moscow.

At 72, Ismail Yitmen knows the risks of the job well.

On the edge of the Middle East, the country has already suffered aftershocks from the wars in Syria and Iraq, both located on its southeastern borders.

“As soon as the war started in Iraq, and then in Syria, European and American tourists stopped coming. We lost them… they thought we were too close”, comments Hassan Duzen, sitting with his friends at the back of his deserted carpet shop, below the Ottoman palace of Topkapi.

He is convinced, « the same thing will happen: they will look at a map, see the Black Sea and think that we are too close to war…why would they take risks »?

It is not the young couple (who wish to remain anonymous) who will contradict him: « We don’t want to stay here… you don’t realize, they can hit you with their missiles », assures the young man with a blurred look. by anxiety.


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