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4 Oct, 2010

Turkey’s Iran Arrivals Up, Israelis Down

By Imtiaz Muqbil

ISTANBUL — In an era when a country’s foreign policy is set to have a greater impact on visitor arrivals than its tourism policy, Turkey is witnessing significant increases in visitors from Iran and significant decreases in arrivals from Israel, largely as a result of geopolitical shifts.

Only 2,605 Israelis visited Turkey in June 2010, compared to 27,289 in June last year, according to the Turkish Tourism Ministry. The dramatic decline came after the deadly Israeli raid on Gaza-bound aid ships on May 31, killing eight Turks and one American of Turkish descent.

That decline was a continuation of last year’s events. As a result of the anti-Israel comments by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at the World Economic Forum Davos in 2009, the number of Israeli visitors dropped 41% from 135,000 in 2008 to 80,000 in 2009.

While Israel is now Turkey’s fastest shrinking market, Iran is one of the fastest growing markets, as the two countries boost bilateral economic and cultural ties. Arrivals from Iran have grown from 865,942 in 2006 to 1.38 million in 2009. Iran is now Turkey’s fifth most important source of visitor arrivals after Germany, the Russian Federation, U.K. and Bulgaria.

While the Israelis have shifted their business to Greece, Turkish tourism authorities are expecting a surge in visitors from Iran as well as the entire Middle East, especially the Gulf region.

Thanks to the abolition of visa requirements, arrivals from Syria have more than doubled, making Syria the fastest growing source of arrivals, albeit off a small base. In Jan-July 2010, arrivals to Turkey from the UAE were up 74%, Lebanon 73% and Saudi Arabia 47%.

On a visit here last week, I saw hundreds of Islamic tourists (as well as Europeans and Americans) queuing up in Sultan Ahmet square, the Turkish equivalent of Bangkok’s Grand Palace and Temple of the Emerald Buddha complex, to witness a special exhibition of “1001 Inventions: Discover the Muslim Heritage in Our World” (www.1001inventions.com).

Istanbul was the first city to host this unique exhibition after it moved as part of a world tour from the Science Museum in London where it received 400,000 visitors during its run between January-June 2010. The exhibition opened in Istanbul in August and ended Oct 4 with the next stage being a tour of cities in the United States and Canada.

Also drawing Muslim visitors to Istanbul is an exhibition commemorating of the 1,400th anniversary of the revelation of the Qur’an at Istanbul’s Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art. Set to continue until Dec 1, the exhibition includes rare pieces of Qur’anic manuscripts and Islamic calligraphy, some of them being displayed for the first time.

Indeed, Turkish tourism is set to enjoy a boom year in 2010. Visitor arrivals in first-half 2010 totalled 12.1 million, up from 11.3 million in the first half of 2009. Tourism income in first-half 2010 was US$6.97 billion, up from US$6.71 billion in first-half 2009.

According to an article in Hurriyet Daily news, “Turkey was the only G-20 country that was able to increase its incoming tourists in 2009. And with the exception of April and July, the numbers look even more impressive this year so far.”

Serdar Aliabet, the owner of Karnak Travel, a 25-year-old tour operator bringing tourists from Arab countries, was quoted by Hurriyet as saying that he expected a further increase in the number of Arab tourists in 2011. “If all those countries are united under the single roof of the Arab market, they could be the region sending the second highest number of tourists to Turkey in 2011,” he said.

Turkish travel agents note that Muslim visitors are generally shying away from Europe due to the perceived anti-Islamic sentiments there. At the same time, the Turkish government itself is shifting its economic and foreign relations to develop closer ties with the Middle East, ASEAN, India and China.

Turkish Airlines is deploying significant capacity increases in flights to Asia and the Middle East. Last July, its flights from Istanbul to the Saudi holy city of Medinah were raised from 7 to 12 flights per week.

In Asia, the Star Alliance partner carrier is to launch new flights from Istanbul to Ho Chi Minh City four times a week via Bangkok as of December 29. It will also boost its Istanbul-Singapore-Jakarta services from 5 to 6 flights per week as of Jan 8, 2011, and the Istanbul-Seoul Incheon flights also from 5 to 6 per week as of Jan 05, 2011. Flights to Manila and Guangzhou are planned in 2011.

The airline’s financial report shows that its international traffic from the Far East destinations rose from 11.6% of the total in Jan-June 2009 to 12.2% of the total in Jan-June 2010. From the Middle East, international traffic was up from 14.9% of the total to 15.3% in the same period.

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