Already the world’s 7th most-popular tourist destination, Turkey has continued to grow in 2011, as economic expansion and political stability raise its profile in the region. The country saw a 10.76% increase in visitors between January to September 2011 compared to the same nine-month period in 2010.
The strong growth makes it likely that visitor numbers will top 30m annually for the first time, rising from 28.6m in 2010 to a projected 31.7m. With revenue from tourism coming in at as much as $25bn annually, the sector continues to both benefit from, and boost, economic growth.
Istanbul is still the primary driver for tourism growth, attracting 6.9m tourists in the first 10 months of 2011, already surpassing the full-year figures for 2010. The goal is for 8m visitors for the full year.
But the maturity of the Istanbul tourist market has led some businesses to look further afield for profits. Hilton Hotels Corporation, for example, announced in November 2011 that it had signed contracts for 11 new hotels in Turkey, which it views as its most successful international development market.
Only two of these properties will be in Istanbul, with the rest appearing in often-overlooked regional cities, including Diyarbakir, Manisa, Bursa, Kutahya, Mardin and Sanliurfa. Bursa is also seeing the construction of two new hotels from the Starwood group, under the Sheraton and Aloft brands, which are expected to open in 2013.
The country’s success in attracting visitors is owed in part to concerted efforts by officials, working mainly out of the General Directorate of Promotion, to market Turkey to foreign tourists and travel operators. The Ministry of Tourism will spend $96.8m this year on TV commercials, advertisements on billboards and internet banners, as well as funding the activities of 40 offices worldwide.
Countries with recently opened offices include Brunei Darussalam, Malaysia, China and India, highlighting Turkey’s determination to seek unconventional but growing markets. Meanwhile, the April 2011 agreement with Russia to allow for visa-free travel between the countries should help bolster a market that already provides 13% of visitors.
Another of these unconventional markets is the Middle East, where instability tied to the Arab Spring is driving many people, particularly wealthy Gulf residents, to choose Turkey over Egypt or Syria as a getaway. Arrivals from Arab states have risen by around 200,000 to more than 1.67m this year, for a 13.6% growth rate that makes the Middle East Turkey’s fastest-growing tourist market.
The political orientation of Turkey and its competitors have helped spur arrivals, as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has won support among Arabs for his stance against Israel. Meanwhile, there are indications that some Arab tourists perceive France and other European countries, by banning the veil, among other measures, as creating an atmosphere where Muslim visitors are unwelcome. Businesses are catering to this expanding sector, with Turkish Airlines, for example, increasing its routes to Saudi Arabia six-fold.
Another niche area seeing growth is health tourism, where Turkey benefits from lower costs and proximity to Europe. The country saw 74,093 visiting patients in 2008, 91,952 in 2009 and 109,678 in 2010, and sources expect growth of 15% in 2011. Most “health tourists” are residents of Germany, the Netherlands and France with Turkish backgrounds, who return for inexpensive and high-quality medical care.
Turkey’s moderate climate and abundance of thermal springs also offer scope for expansion beyond Turkish-heritage visitors. The Ministry of Tourism, seeking to become the world’s leader in “thermal tourism”, aims to have 50,000 thermal beds installed in the short term, with 250,000 beds as the medium-term target.
One example of the investments being made in this sector is Afyon’s Alila Wellness Park, which will bill itself as Europe's largest thermal facility, with 2000 beds. The $80m project would feature two hotels and two spas, and offer a combined “thermal, summer and religious” holiday. The project is being aimed at Turkish tourists primarily, demonstrating the growing clout of Turkey’s domestic market.
The continued development and diversification of Turkey’s tourism sector parallels the nation’s status as an emerging, increasingly sophisticated economy. While dependence on tourism revenues tends to leave countries vulnerable to global economic shocks, Turkey’s increasing outreach to the diversified Middle Eastern and Asian tourist markets, coupled with the growth in domestic tourism, should help ensure robust earnings for the short and medium term.