Tourism to Turkey: Challenges and Hope


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On July 1, the American spa brand Canyon Ranch opened its first international spa, Canyon Ranch Wellness Resort at Kaplankaya, on the Turkish Riviera near the city of Bodrum.

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Canyon Ranch

Tourism to Turkey was already down following two terrorist attacks in the last year: a suicide attack by an Islamic State operative in January that killed 10 tourists in the heart of Istanbul’s historic district, and bombings last October in Ankara that left over 100 people dead. Following those incidents, over 20 percent fewer American tourists visited Turkey in the first five months of this year compared with the same period last year, according to the Turkish Culture and Tourism Office in New York City.

The latest attack, on June 28 at Istanbul Ataturk Airport, killed dozens of people and wounded more than 200. Not surprisingly, the pressure on the country’s vulnerable tourist market has intensified.

Despite the bleak situation, there may be reasons to be optimistic about the country’s longer-term prospects as a vacation destination.

But first, the bad news: Hotels as well as Turkey travel specialists who plan private trips to the country are reporting cancellations, while some cruise lines and tour companies have either canceled or temporarily put their Turkey trips on hold.

Just a few days after the airport attack, for example, the Seattle-based Windstar Cruises canceled ports of call in Turkey on 16 weeklong cruises from July through October that either embarked or disembarked in Istanbul and included mid-cruise stops in Kusadasi and Bodrum; stops in Greece were already part of the itinerary, and the trips have been revised to include only Greek ports.

Windstar’s vice president of deployment and revenue operations, Doug Santoni, said that the decision made the most sense given the reaction from customers following the incident at the airport. “As soon as the airport attack occurred, we were barraged with phone calls from guests saying they no longer wanted to go on the cruises, and we did this from a safety and customer sentiment perspective,” he said.

The company has been operating cruises in the region for more than a decade, he said, and bookings this year were already significantly lower compared with previous years because of the two earlier terrorist attacks.

The Melbourne-based Intrepid Travel, meanwhile, runs several trips to Turkey a week during the summer season; it has only temporarily halted them until July 7. “Safety, of course, is our first priority, but events like terrorism can happen anywhere in the world, and we believe it is safe to travel to Turkey,” said Leigh Barnes, the company’s president in North America.

Intrepid’s sales on its Turkey trips are down 60 percent globally, he said, but the destination has been among its most popular in the past.

Private tour operators also say that their Turkey business has taken a nose-dive. Engin Kadaster, the owner of Turkey at Its Best, a company in Newport Beach, Calif., selling private trips to the country, says business is down 80 percent this year and that five potential clients whom she had sent proposals to contacted her immediately after the airport attacks to say they were no longer considering a trip to the country.

Hotels, too, are taking a hit. Occupancy at Pera Palace Hotel Jumeirah, an upscale 115-room property in Istanbul that first opened in 1892 as an Orient Express hotel, is down 40 percent this year, according to the general manager Pinar Timer. “Like any other city in the world where such terrorist incidents have occurred, we have suffered,” she said.

And at Ciragan Palace Kempinski Istanbul, a luxury hotel set on the Bosporus, revenues are projected to be down around 30 percent in 2016, according to the general manager Ralph Radtke. Although rates are lower than usual — rooms now start at around 400 euros (about $450) a night instead of 550 ($612) — slashing prices is not the solution, he said. “The prices in Turkey are not an issue. The perception of safety is an issue, and if people feel unsafe, they aren’t going to come no matter what,” he said.

Bike Gursel, the chairman of Marmara Hotels, a chain of five hotels in Turkey including three in Istanbul, one in Bodrum and one in Antalya, said that occupancy rates at her properties were already at a historically low 20 percent before the airport incident, but the room cancellations she’s had since then will most certainly push that number lower. “We [Turkey] were just starting to bloom in the tourism sector, and everyone here is so sad that these events are taking away from that growth,” she said.

Ms. Kadaster said that although her overall business is down, there are people with booked trips who aren’t canceling. “I have travelers telling me that they aren’t going to let terrorists dictate their lives,” she said.

And, all the hoteliers say that, despite the room cancellations, there are travelers who refuse to be deterred. Ms. Timer said that for some of Pera Palace’s regular guests, it’s business as usual. “They are still coming and going forward with their plans,” she said.

On July 1, the American spa brand Canyon Ranch opened its first international spa, Canyon Ranch Wellness Resort at Kaplankaya, on the Turkish Riviera near the city of Bodrum. The property has 141 rooms, a 107,500-square-foot spa with 40 treatment rooms and 76 villas. Several guests checked in on opening day, said the Canyon Ranch chief executive Susan E. Docherty. “What happened is very painful, but, from our standpoint, tourism brings people together and can offer stability,” she said. “We have been working on this resort for more than four years and remain committed to our mission.”

A sign of optimism came last week when the Russian president Vladimir V. Putin, following positive talks with the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, lifted restrictions on tourism to Turkey that he imposed after Turkey downed a Russian warplane in November.

Russians are the second biggest tourism market in Turkey after the Germans, according to the Ministry of Culture and Tourism — around 4.5 million Russians traveled there in 2014. That number is down around 80 percent thus far in 2016; lifting the ban will help buoy tourism for the rest of the year.

“We are ready to welcome Russians, Americans and any traveler from around the world and are hopeful that the second half of 2016 will be more positive than the first,” said Murat Karakus, the director of the Turkish Culture and Tourism Office in New York City.

Ms. Kadaster, of Turkey at Its Best, has a more long-term perspective on tourism to Turkey. “The market might hurt temporarily, but travelers will eventually come back,” she said. “Turkey is a 12,000-year-old civilization and not going anywhere.”

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