Neighbourhood guests: Closer regional ties are helping boost the number of visitors

If Turkish tourism sector has been struggling to breaking into the high-value visitor market, the tides may be turning. The past two years have been characterised by a marked increase in arrivals from the Middle East. Drawn by Turkey’s growing regional presence, expanding facilities and cultural similarity, Middle Eastern guests are diversifying – and expanding – the sector’s revenue stream. Iran currently represents the fourth-biggest source of arrivals, with 1.9m visitors in 2011, a number that has grown steeply from 865,000 in 2006. The share of arrivals from the Gulf states is also on the increase, although from a much lower base. In 2011 42,000 Kuwaitis visited Turkey as compared with 27,000 in 2010 – a 53% increase.

SPENDING BIG: The rise in Gulf visitors is driving a tangible spending growth. A November 2011 report by Turkey’s Interbank Card Centre showed that transactions on foreign credit cards jumped 35% in the firsthalf of 2011, attributed in large part to the influx of Middle Eastern tourists. The report highlighted the tendency of these visitors to spend on individual purchases rather than all-inclusive holidays or package tours.

Such industry figures confirm a shift in the tourism sector. “Ten years ago, we saw budget travellers visiting Istanbul with little money to spend,” said Bulut Bağcı, chairman of Gençtur, a local tour operators association. “Now we see high-value visitors arriving, particularly Arab tourists with huge budgets.” In the wake of the Arab Spring and the recent instability in the region, wealthy Gulf tourists who typically frequent Egyptian or Syrian resorts and head to Beirut to shop are now spending their holidays elsewhere. Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Bahrain all posted tourism declines of over 15%, with Egypt falling 33% and Syria losing 41%.

Visitors to Lebanon spent over $3000 per person in 2010 — over four times as much as tourists in Turkey — with spending driven mostly by wealthy Saudis and Kuwaitis in Beirut’s luxury establishments. Should Turkey capture a slice of this market, it could easily reach the targeted average of a $1000 spend per touring guest.

CULTURAL AFFINITIES: Arab tourists enjoy visiting Turkey because of the country’s historical legacy and growing soft power in the region, and its moderate Muslim heritage may be more welcoming than cities in continental Europe. The wealth of Islamic architecture is similarly attractive. Moreover, Turkish television is popular in the Arab world, and soap operas like Gümüş (“Silver”), Muhtesem Yüzyıl (“The Magnificent Century”) and Aşk -ı Memnu (“Forbidden Love”) broadcast into millions of living rooms. Entrepreneurial operators now offer tours of the filming locations of these shows.

The growing arrival of conservative-minded guests has sparked investment in tourism facilities directed at observant Muslims. Qatar-based and semi-state-owned company Retaj Marketing and Project Management will invest up to $500m in hotels in Turkey. Retaj hotels will be alcohol- and smoke-free. A 107-room property in Istanbul is the first goal, with possible expansions to the historic city of Bursa under consideration.

STRATEGIC MOVES: Turkey’s foreign policy has played a role in the influx of Arab tourist. As per a strategy outlined by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, Turkey has improved political and economic relations with neighbouring countries and GCC states. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan routinely ranks first among polls of Arabs’ favourite leaders, thanks in part to his vocal support for Palestine and his harsh words on Israel. More concretely, Turkey has eliminated visa requirements for visitors from Syria, Qatar, Lebanon, Yemen and Jordan.

Despite the media attention Turkey’s Arab tourism story has grabbed in the past year, it is important not to exaggerate the significance of a 200,000-person increase to the overall industry. Global politics are volatile, and renewed stability in Syria and Egypt could lure back Gulf tourists. Moreover, the success of Turkey’s foreign policy in Arab markets was mirrored by a 28% drop in Israeli arrivals, some 30,000 visitors. Still, there is no reason to think that Turkey’s growing prominence in regional affairs will not be a long-term phenomenon, and 2011’s tourism boost may be just the beginning.

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