Turkish Tourism Buoyed by Ancient History and Modern Visitors, Even During Testy Times

by Maria Lisella
Turkish Tourism Buoyed by Ancient History and Modern Visitors, Even During Testy Times

Istanbul, a city that is celebrating the return of a number of cruise lines, is expecting a tourism boost in 2019. Photo: Lepneva Irina / Shutterstock.com 


Headlines of economic woes and political unrest no longer throw the fear of God into travelers, especially if the destinations are compelling and timeless. Americans, in particular, have shown themselves to be resilient travelers.

Witness the rise in visitor arrivals in Greece, which is now in the throes of its eighth record-breaking year (see Travel Market Report, Aug. 8, 2018), while tourism in nearby Turkey rose by just over 50 percent in the first quarter of 2018 for a total of 7,263,807 visitors worldwide.

This bodes well for the country at large, as one-fifth of employment in Turkey is directly or indirectly from the travel and tourism industry. According to the Ministry of Culture for Tourism, the country’s total tourism revenue for 2017 was $26 billion, which accounts for 3.1 percent of the total GDP for the year, $851 billion.

At the same time, the Turkish lira has dropped, losing more than 34 percent of its value against the dollar in six months, which is good news for travelers.

Turkey’s Ministry of Culture of Tourism of Turkey says he expects the country to receive 40 million foreign tourists this year; and by 2023, set a target of 50 million tourist arrivals and $50 billion in revenues.

Industry statistics tell an encouraging story
The Thomas Cook Holiday Report for 2018 cites the top five destination big-hitters this year so far are: Spain, Greece, Turkey, the U.S., and the Caribbean (replacing Cyprus in the number five spot). But these numbers reflect the British market, not U.S. arrivals.

According to reports from the site, Trading Economics, visitors to Turkey came mainly from Russia (up 16.91 percent to 910,000; Germany (up 12.16 percent to 655,000); the U.K. (up 6.75 percent to 363,000); Bulgaria (up 4.37 percent to 235,000) and Georgia (up 3.79 percent to 204,000).

Stateside, Virtuoso members report a sharp increase in demand for luxury travel to Turkey with bookings up 310 percent over last year. That is followed closely by Egypt (up 264 percent). Morocco is also attracting growing interest among high-end travelers and its bookings for the period are up 144 percent; while India’s bookings are up 128 percent

Koray Edemen-CEO and Founder of Key Tours states that worldwide demand as well as demand from the U.S. has rebounded and several cruise lines announced they would include Istanbul for 2019. He reports the demand for flexible custom FIT and group vacations is up over 40 percent for 2018 compared to 2017, with overall demand for Turkey above 25 percent.

Turkey is Intrepid Travel’s fastest-growing destination to date in 2018, boasting 214 percent growth in global bookings this year compared to 2017. 

No one in travel likes to report losses. However, individual agents are telling a different story. Comments range from, “None of my clients are going to Turkey this year”; to one high-end operator that sells products to prosperous and savvy North American travelers saying with confidence, “We are just not prepared to address this right now. Suffice to say, demand has been low this year.” Others refused to comment.

A recent New York Times article cited Firuz B. Baglikaya, president of the Association of Turkish Travel Agencies, saying that tourism growth over the past year has broken all records and he was optimistic this growth would continue into 2019. The visitors he cites however, are from Russia, Asia and the Middle East who see Turkey as the rich cultural destination it is and an affordable one for them.

Diplomatic rows with the U.S., Germany and other European countries threw some alarm into U.S. travelers, resulting in a plunge in numbers that, by some reports, dipped by 30-40 percent from 2015-2017. During that time, there was an attack at Ataturk airport, a failed coup against the current President Erdogan that he followed up with a crackdown, and some testiness with the U.S.

At the same time, hotel groups report a spike in occupancy levels according to another New York Times article: “The Hilton Hotel group — which has 90 properties either open in Turkey or in the works across its Hilton, Conrad, Hilton Garden Inn, Doubletree and Hampton brands — reported a 62 percent rise in the number of rooms occupied by guests from Iran and nations in the Persian Gulf alone.”

When it comes to safety and political unrest, the U.S. Department of State is still the go-to agency for information. This year, the State Department introduced improvements to the Travel Advisory system that provides levels of advice ranging from Level 1 (“Exercise normal precautions”) to Level 4 (“Do Not Travel”). Yet, the Department of State continues to recommend travelers reconsider travel to areas along the Turkey-Syria border and the southeastern provinces.

Knowing geography helps to evaluate situations. For instance, in Turkey, the distance between Istanbul and the furthest regions to the southeast is roughly 900+ miles – greater than the distance between London and Rome, or about the distance between New York and Texas. This scope and size provide a number of options when considering where to travel in Turkey.

U.S. citizens need a visa to travel to Turkey, and that process was murky, at best, in 2017. It began with a dispute in October 2017, followed by the restoration of limited visa service in November; and by December 2017, the U.S. and Turkey normalized the process and resumed full visa services. Today, American citizens can obtain a visa online prior to departure (not at Ataturk Airport upon arrival as in the past). 

Hotel update
The first Six Senses resort in Turkey opened this spring in Kaplankaya. Set on the banks of the Aegean, Six Senses Kaplankaya counts 141 guestrooms, six suites and 66 private villas. The hotel’s secluded location offers a range of activities, such as watersports, hiking and nature trails, and its state-of-the-art spa provides a range of pioneering wellness regimens.

With 83 rooms and suites, the Galata Istanbul Hotel – MGallery by Sofitel recently opened its doors. The luxury establishment property features a traditional Turkish Hammam.

EDITION Hotels is also launching its new 102-room hotel in Bodrum that will overlook the Aegean Sea. The Bodrum EDITION includes an infinity pool, Turkish Hammam and fitness center.

New cultural attraction
The Year of Troy 2018, which also celebrates the 20th anniversary of the archaeological site’s designation as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site, boasts a calendar of cultural and sporting events throughout the year into 2019.

The Troy Museum opened this month as part of the celebrations for the Year of Troy. It is considered one of the most important contemporary archaeological museums in the world, with more than 150 exhibits selected by an international jury, that highlights 5,000 years of history, legend and mythology.

The Troy Museum is located at the entrance to the Troy archeological site in Çanakkale, the historic setting of the Trojan War as recounted in Homer's poem “The Iliad.” The main museum building, costing $13.2 million, was designed to be of equal height to the pre-excavation ancient city.

About 2,000 archeological objects from Troy and Troas are displayed, including sculptures, inscriptions, sarcophagi, altars and coins. Central to the exhibits will be 24 pieces of gold jewelry that were returned as a result of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism’s efforts, as well as Homer’s “The Iliad,” from Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace.

“The history and legends of Troy still hold a central place in modern Turkish identity, standing at a crossroads of civilizations and representing the intersection of eastern and western culture,” states the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism. “The new museum will bring to life this ancient civilization, preserving it for generations to come.”

Turkish Airlines also launched a “Troia”-themed aircraft. The A321-type aircraft is specially designed with a livery of the Trojan Horse, made famous in Homer’s account of the Trojan War in “The Iliad.”

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