Violence costing Turkey precious tourism, even far from the fighting

Foreign tourists are canceling their Turkey travel plans, and billions in revenues have been lost to the fighting with the Islamic State, Kurds, and far-left groups.

Cagdas Erdogan/AP
A man protesting against Turkey's operations against Kurdish militants holds a sign that reads in Turkish: 'Peace Block,' in Istanbul, Wednesday. There has been a sharp escalation of violence between Turkey's security forces and the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, along with the collapse of a two-year peace process with the rebels.

Sitting in front of his empty rug shop in the center of Kaş, a sleepy resort town on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast, Soner Gezigi puffs on his cigarette, watching a Turkish family amble down the cobblestone street. 

“Turks are vacationing here, but British tourists hardly come anymore,” says Soner. “We are far from the fighting and unrest, but my business depends on foreign tourists, and this season has been difficult. The situation in Turkey today has many people worried.”

A surge of violent attacks across Turkey, the war in neighboring Syria, and political instability at home have plunged the country into a period of deep uncertainty, with Turkey’s tourism sector taking a hit. Officials predict a decline of $5 billion in tourism revenue by the end of the year, with the number of foreigners visiting Turkey dropping amid the heightened security risks.

On Wednesday, gunmen opened fire outside of Istanbul’s Dolmabahce Palace, while at least eight Turkish soldiers were killed in a bomb attack attributed to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Turkish media reported. 

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the Istanbul attack, but police arrested two armed suspects believed to be affiliated with the far-left Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C), according to the state-run Anadolu Agency. The group claimed responsibility for a shooting at the US Consulate in Istanbul last week that briefly shut down operations but caused no injuries.

Turkey fighting on two fronts

Ankara is waging what it considers a two-front “war on terror,” joining the US-led coalition against Islamic State (IS) fighters in Syria while launching airstrikes on Kurdish PKK militants in southeast Turkey and northern Iraq. The violence comes at a time of political flux in the NATO member state, with negotiations to form a new government collapsing this week, paving the way for fresh elections.

The rising insecurity has contributed to a decline in revenue from Turkey’s tourism sector, which saw a 13.8 percent drop in the second quarter of the year – down to $7.73 billion compared with $8.9 billion from the same period in 2014 – according to data from the Turkish Statistics Institute.

The loss is significant because tourism revenue helps finance Ankara’s large deficit while serving as a critical source of foreign currency, says Fadi Hakura, a Turkey analyst at the London-based Chatham House think tank. A report by the World Travel & Tourism Council estimates that travel and tourism generated roughly 12 percent, or $96 billion, of Turkey’s GDP last year. 

“The tourism industry is the most sensitive to the whirlwinds of unrest unfolding in Turkey as a result of the spillover from the war in Syria and the conflict with the PKK,” says Mr. Hakura. “In the past, we’ve seen the PKK target tourist sites, and it is quite feasible that the Islamic State will target the tourist industry in Turkey to hurt the Turkish economy to the fullest extent possible.”

Turkey’s Tourism Ministry reported a 2.25 percent decline in the number of foreign visitors to Turkey in the first half of this year, as tour operators and hotels reported a decline in reservations. 

“Our business is much lower than it used to be even a year ago,” says Eyup Yildiz, the owner of Argent Tours in Istanbul. “People are not coming to Turkey. We mostly work with American customers and many have canceled, saying they do not feel safe.”

Travel advisories

One of the biggest perceived threats for foreign tourists comes from IS, which was blamed for a July 20 suicide bombing in the Turkish border town of Suruc that killed at least 33 people. At least nine countries have issued travel advisories to their citizens in the aftermath of that attack, discouraging travel to the border regions of Turkey. Another seven countries – including Britain and Canada – have encouraged their citizens to avoid eastern Turkish cities. 

“We have seen cancellations through October,” says Yunus Yetkin, general manager at Rescate Hotel in the southeastern city of Van. “The situation here is not as bad as it seems in the news and on the TV, but foreign people don’t want to go to a country which has problems.”

Zaffrana Khan, an IT consultant with an investment bank in London, wanted to cancel her upcoming vacation to southern Turkey due to the threat of attacks, but decided to go ahead with the trip after she was unable to get a refund.

“We will stay at the resort, which is a real shame as it is our first trip to Turkey and we would have liked to have gone into the city and to the markets to support the local economy,” says Zaffrana, who plans to travel to the country next week with her husband and adopted daughter. “We will be taking [sneakers] to the beach with us in case we need to run – that’s for sure.”

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