A damper on Turkey's tourism
Kurd rebels threaten to attack foreigners to protest the trial of their
KAS, AND ISTANBUL, TURKEY — It's the start of a lonely summer for boater Sukru Ekici. Since he was nine years old, he has been guiding tourists around the shores near his home of Simena, a tiny Turkish island off the Mediterranean coast. This winter Mr. Ekici, now in his 20s, finally managed to buy a big boat that would normally earn him a lot of money: $60 each trip, four trips a day.
But foreign tourists, intimidated by recent terrorist threats, are staying away this year. At noon the docks are still full of idle boats, and Ekici is fortunate if he can negotiate one trip a day for $20.
Many Turks are elated at the capture of Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah "Apo" Ocalan and are looking forward with relish to the start of his trial Monday. But some Kurds have retaliated by threatening foreign tourists, hoping to cause economic troubles for Turkey. They've enjoyed some success: Turks who cater to tourists are already empty-handed at the start of the high season.
"After Apo got arrested, suddenly Kurdish terrorists are all over the papers, and on CNN the whole world is watching a Kurd burn himself in protest," Ekici says, referring to the protests that spread across Europe. "They say it's in the south, and everyone thinks it's here. This is bad for us. I wish Apo had never been arrested."
The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), led by Mr. Ocalan, is fighting Turkey to carve out an independent homeland for their ethnic group. About 29,000 people have died as a result of the conflict. The occasional bomb attack or hostage-taking has kept travelers away from the Kurdish territory of the southeast, but now, the PKK has warned foreign tourists to avoid Turkey altogether. But so far the few bombs that have gone off have not been in tourist locales.
Two British tourists, lone lunchers at a seaside restaurant on Simena, say they did hear warnings from friends before their trip, "You're going to Turkey - bombs!"
"But there are bombs in England, bombs here - what's the difference?" says Peter Chalk.
In Istanbul there are noticeably fewer tourists around the old-town district, where the Blue Mosque and Grand Bazaar usually draw throngs. The upscale Four Seasons Hotel is offering discounts after scoffing at any suggestion of them earlier.
The annual International Istanbul Music and Theater Festivals, which receive significant revenues from foreign tour groups, had 93 percent of them cancel this year. Individuals have been e-mailing the festival, asking if it is safe to come and bring their families.
"We're living here, and we see it's really nothing," says Meric Soylu, who organizes foreign visits to the festivals. "But it's hard to explain that to people. They hear things, and then they are afraid to come."
The Turks most affected live in resort towns on the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts that rely on summer tourism money to get by the whole year.
Usually to get a room in Kas, a scenic town of 8,000 tucked into a hilly bay of the Mediterranean, vacationers must reserve far in advance. But a month ago cancellations for the entire season started rolling off hotel fax machines. Hotels are expected to be only half full this summer, even with reduced prices.
"Every summer there is one crisis or another, but this political situation has really affected us," says Muzaffer Alp, owner of the Medusa Hotel. "The problem is with first-time customers who are afraid to come."
Business owners in Kas had a meeting last week and agreed to freeze last year's lira prices, which means real prices are down 40 percent due to Turkey's soaring inflation.
"Everyone is being very careful, calculating how much they will earn and how much they can spend," says Seref Orakcal, owner of the Marina Restaurant in Kas.
The tiny harbor village of Ucagizlar and the neighboring island of Simena - described by one resident as "combined population 650, population growth zero" - rely completely on fishing and tourism for their livelihoods.
Sixty skippers, including Ekici, ferry tourists to see the remains of an ancient sunken city and 2,500-year-old tombs. They used to pool their revenues and divide them up according to the size of boat that each skipper operates. But with so few visitors, the large boats are never hired, and competition has started among the small ones, driving prices down and ending the pool system.
"There used to be so many boats cruising the shore. Now it's dead," says Ali Bicak, a Turkish tourist who visits the area every year. "They've made a lot of investments here, and I can see they'll have trouble repaying this."
Unemployment hasn't hit yet, but if it does the result will be ironic, according to Mr. Alp, the hotel owner in Kas. "A lot of Kurdish people work in the south in construction and tourism," he says. "A drop in tourism will hurt them too."