Executives in Turkey's tourism sector are likely to have a spring in their step these days. Figures from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism for July have put the country on course for a record-breaking year thanks to an insatiable inflow of foreigners. However, while some analysts argue that Turkey has yet to realise its full potential as a tourist magnet, translating potential into reality can be a tricky and costly task.
Meanwhile, some recent growth deserves particular notice, irrespective of the sector's shortcomings. In July 2004, over 2.5m tourists entered the country, with 2.1m registered in July 2003 against 1.8m in July 2002. At the same time, the number of visitors over the first seven months of the year reveals an equally consistent pattern: with 9.3m in 2004, 6.8m in 2003 and 6.9m in 2002. No surprise then regarding the positive forecasts of the World Tourism Organisation. Turkey, it claims, should expect 17.1m tourists in 2010 and an eye-popping 27m in 2020. These estimates are perfectly plausible since the country registered 14m visitors in 2003, and will most likely bag another 2m by the end of 2004.
In the meantime the value of tourist receipts has increased exponentially over the last three years. The first three months of 2004 registered $1.71bn versus $1.20bn in the first three months of 2003 and $1.07bn during the same period in 2002. Next year is likely to see this figure shoot up once more - albeit subject to a relative level of stability in the region.
Growth, by implication, has been fuelled by increased confidence in Turkey's domestic environment. Global security fears have deterred some of Europe's tourists from visiting over the last three years, but as debate in Europe intensifies as to whether Turkey will join the European Union, so does the sense of familiarity with the country. Germany's army of tourists has swelled from 1.5m to over 2m year-on-year between the months of January and July this year. Russian, Bulgarian, English, Dutch and French visitors have followed, with an expansion of 41.7%, 51.5%, 34.1%, 34.6% and 17.9% respectively over the same period.
Meanwhile, visits from the Arab world have experienced an equally positive trend. Turmoil in the Middle East, along with the US-led "war on terror" has discouraged Arab tourists from heading towards the West. South-east Asia, another popular tourist destination for Arabs, then became less attractive in 2003 with the outbreak of the SARS epidemic. The immediate drop in visitors to Turkey following the onset of the war in Iraq, moreover, has proved to be temporary. Growth has also been spurred directly by the country's leaders, with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan seeking to engage Middle Eastern neighbours more closely, in particular Syria, Libya and Iran. In this context, the Arab love for shopping, along with Turkey's Muslim-though-secular culture, has helped boost the number of Arab arrivals.
Figures for Arab arrivals speak for themselves. The Ministry of Culture and Tourism reported 2.14m visits from non-European countries in 2004, up from 1.54m in 2003. In 2003 alone, arrivals from the Middle East increased by 15% from 359,000 to 412,000. This is not to deny the potential for further growth. The market could provide up to 2m tourists a year, if properly developed. Out of these, tourists from the Gulf would be particularly welcome. According to the Turkish Travel Agencies Union (TURSAD), visitors from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) spend, on average, 10 times more than European tourists. As popular activities amongst Gulf visitors, mountain and health tourism are likely to receive further government investment over the coming years - though subject to the constraints of a stretched budget.
This focus of course is not to deny the importance of Turkey's 3000 beaches, which remain the main magnet for sun-starved Europeans. But whilst the majority of visitors flock to the coast, Turkey's urban centres and historical sites are proving as popular as ever. A 2004 survey by Travel & Leisure World placed Istanbul as the eighth most popular city in the world - a feat unmatched by Paris or London. In the meantime, visits to the western Turkish city of Canakkale have experienced a massive boost thanks to the recent release of the Hollywood blockbuster Troy. Though film critics may rightly complain about the film's interpretation of the Iliad, tourist numbers to the original site have jumped by 73%, now reaching 219,358 visitors a year.
Growth though, must be fed by a commensurate level of development and investment. The Tourism Ministry has already announced its intention to push for the increased preservation and promotion of Turkey's cultural and historical sites. Preservation of the Ankara citadel and an upgrade of the Anatolian Civilisations Museum are already in the offing. In addition, historical sites will now be opened to investors through a build-operate-transfer (BOT) model - involving the reconstruction, preservation and promotion of historical sites by private means. But time will reveal the effectiveness and seriousness of such initiatives. Traditionally, efforts to expand Turkey's tourism potential have focused on extending the season in existing resorts.
Closely interlinked is the question of pricing. High admission fees to historical sites are seen as a necessity by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, given the costs of sector-wide development and preservation. In spite of small reductions in 2003, entry charges continue to deter the more tight-fisted visitors from spending their cash. But tourists could conceivably spend more once they have entered the premises of a site at a cheaper cost, resulting in higher tourist receipts.
Meanwhile, local travellers have complained about the cost of internal flights with Turkish Airlines. The situation though has - and will - continue to improve. Thanks to the emergence of Onur Air and Atlas Jet, Turkey's national carrier has faced downward pressure on its prices.
Tourist authorities will push on in their efforts to mould Turkey into an even more attractive tourist destination. But developing historical sites and reducing costs both require plenty of money and effort. Increased tourist revenue will no doubt help to cover some of the costs, but authorities will need to dig deep for a true transformation.