Tough times for Turkish tourism, with no end in sight

Tough times for Turkish tourism, with no end in sight

Following a referendum vote that stands to give more power
to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the country’s tourism industry, once
a powerful economic driver, is struggling to remain hopeful despite being
caught up in the struggles of a nation already divided following a string of
terror attacks and political unrest.

“Realistically, it might take several years [for
Turkey] to recover,” Brian Tan, founder and CEO of the Mountain View,
Calif.-based agency Zicasso, said last week. “Travelers will want to see a
long period of stability without continual negative news in the media, such as
suppression of journalists, more terror attacks, this week’s referendum, etc.”

Tan said Zicasso’s Turkey business for the first quarter of
2017 was down 60% compared with a year ago. But as travelers wait things out
with Turkey, Zicasso is seeing an uptick in bookings for alternative
destinations, including Greece, Morocco and Croatia.

Operators on the ground in Turkey expressed concern that the
impact of the unrest on them and on the industry could linger for months, if
not years.

“Each terrorist attack decreased the number of people
traveling to Turkey,” said Okan Kutlu, managing director of Istanbul-based
TSC Travel, who also works as a local tour guide.

Prior to 2015, TSC was hosting around 1,200 groups a year in
Turkey. In 2015, that number was cut in half, and in 2016 the operator
experienced an 80% drop in business. Consequently, the company has had to cut
staff, something Kutlu said is becoming increasingly common in the Turkish
tourism industry, leading to growing unemployment in the sector.

“This may cause a big economic crisis in Turkey in the
near future,” Kutlu said.

The challenges facing Turkey’s tourism industry are
reminiscent of those faced by Egypt, a destination that saw its tourism
prospects disintegrate seemingly overnight. Similar to Egypt, Turkey’s tourism
sector was experiencing a fair amount of growth and investment prior to the
attacks and unrest that hit the country in 2015.

In order to see those investments come to fruition and for
Turkey’s tourism industry to regain the status and profitability it once
enjoyed, industry players agree that the country will need to head toward
greater stability. Whether an empowered Erdogan will provide that stability
remains to be seen.

Claudia Worth, Abercrombie & Kent’s product manager for
Turkey, said whatever the eventual political realities, the impact on tourism
won’t be felt immediately.

“I don’t think the outcome of the referendum will have
an immediate effect on our business to Turkey as the new governmental system
will not be in effect until 2019,” Worth said. “So there is time to
watch and see how the country and its people adapt to the change.”

Kutlu’s hope is that travelers ultimately judge Turkey for
its tourism assets, not for its politics.

“Turkey has a unique nature, history and beauties,”
he said. “It also offers a good quality of tourist services at a lower
cost than Europe, especially [compared with] Spain, Italy and France. So I am
sure there will be an increase in demand if there are no more serious terrorist
attacks.”

Kutlu added, “Otherwise, people do not really care
about who is leading the country. Trump is leading the USA at the moment, so as
a Turk should I be afraid of traveling to the USA?”

He observed that terror attacks in places as disparate as
Paris, Brussels, Stockholm, Berlin, Boston, Florida, London and Nice prove that
Turkey and Egypt are hardly alone in facing security issues and terror threats.

“The risk is everywhere, and nobody can guarantee it
won’t happen in Spain or Italy next,” he said. “The fear feeds the
terrorism.”

While Kutlu is hopeful that a certain degree of
desensitization to security threats as a result of how widespread they have
become could ultimately benefit Turkey’s ability to bounce back, Zicasso’s Tan
said that from a client perspective it isn’t that simple.

“We haven’t seen evidence of travelers being
desensitized,” Tan said. “Turkey unfortunately has the combination of
both terrorism and [political] unrest. Most travelers will say, ‘Let’s wait. We
can go elsewhere this year.'”

Nevertheless, for companies that take a longer view of
Turkey’s tourism prospects, all is not lost.

Altamonte Springs, Fla.-based Tourico Holidays, a global
travel distribution company, said it is continuing to invest in Turkey,
especially as it sees growing demand for the Middle East, with destinations
such as Morocco, Algeria and Saudi Arabia seeing year-over-year hotel
reservations doubling and even tripling.

Ala Andriuta, Tourico Holidays’ product director of the
Middle East, said, “Tourico is continuing to grow its product and sales
team in Turkey and will not slow its investments in Turkey. The company
forecasts that both inbound and outbound travel in Turkey will continue to grow
in the long term, but unexpected circumstances or political unrest could
potentially negatively affect the short term.”

Tourico saw reservations this year increase by 112% year
over year across the Middle East, including in Egypt, which has so far
experienced a 300% jump in 2017 reservations compared with last year. Yet,
Turkey was the one destination where reservations remained flat.

“I do not expect a quick recovery for Turkey,”
Kutlu said. “But people will [ultimately] get used to traveling [here
despite] the safety warnings.”

A&K’s Worth added that unrest in the region, especially
in Syria, is likely to continue to impede Turkey’s tourism.

“However, life in the street continues as normal,”
she said. “And there’s absolutely no reason not to travel to Turkey right
now.”

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