Next year, 2014, marks the beginning of a cycle of anniversaries set to last until the end of 2018, as countries across Europe, North America and beyond commemorate the centenary of the First World War. Turkey is looking to combine the expected spike in interest in historic events with a concerted drive to boost tourism revenue.
For Turkey, this cycle will kick into top gear in 2015, with the focus being on and around Gallipoli, some 350 km south of Istanbul. The peninsula and the waters of the Dardanelles – the strait leading to the inland Sea of Marmara – were the scene of heavy fighting in 1915, when the Allies tried to fight their way through to Istanbul and knock Turkey out of the war. By thwarting the British-led offensive in the year-long campaign, the Turks won a major victory, one that is commemorated to this day.
Each year, between 2m and 2.5m Turks tour the national park where the battlefields are located, making it one of the most visited sites in Turkey. Many visitors come on organised tours, while hundreds of thousands of school students visit as part of their education.
There is also a steady flow of foreign tourists to the region, mostly from Australia and New Zealand, whose troops served in the campaign. Estimates put the total of overseas visitors to the battlefields and memorials of 1915 at around 50,000 per year, with the majority of visitors arriving on April 25 – the anniversary of the Allied landings on the peninsula.
Ziya Artam, joint director of Crowded House Hotel and Tours, which specialises in battlefield tours for foreign visitors, says the outlook for the tourism sector in the region is positive, though expectations should not be exaggerated.
“I think that business will grow until 2015, not only for April 25 but all the year round,” Artam told OBG. “2015 will be the peak, but the rise will not be dramatic, returning to present levels in the following years.”
To help deal with the increase in foreign and domestic tourism, the government is ramping up investments in the region, with new roads and a large-scale exhibition centre among the projects to be rolled out. On January 16, Mehmet Daniş, a parliamentary deputy for Çanakkale, announced an additional $54m would be spent on new projects in the region over the next two years, investments he said were part of the government’s commitment to commemorating the 100th anniversary of the campaign.
To date, the government has invested more than $100m, with the most recent large-scale project being a $45m simulation centre featuring 3D animation, films and animated exhibits located at the edge of the battlefields where Australian and New Zealand troops landed in 1915. Other developments have included the construction of new memorials, recreational areas and the upgrade of some 100 km of roads.
While the government appears to be sparing no expense to develop infrastructure to cater for an increased flow of tourists, there has been concern that some of this work is harming the sites. There have been instances where roadwork has destroyed trenches and other reminders of the battles of 1915, as well as uncovering the remains of fallen soldiers.
According to Özay Gündoğan, owner of the Anafartalar War Museum in the village of Büyükanafarta on the northern part of the battlefields, there is the risk excessive development could weaken the appeal of the region to Turkish and foreign visitors.
“Some of the investments being made in the region are causing damage to the very thing that attracts visitors to the area,” Gündoğan told OBG. “Instead of preserving the natural fabric, it serves to damage important sites.”
The challenge for both the government and the private sector is to ensure sustainable tourism in a sensitive region, managing development and the flow of visitors to keep congestion and pollution to a minimum.
Another challenge for tourism operators in the region and for investors is to expand the range of activities. Most tourists stay one night, with many coming only on day trips, limiting the economic input. While some efforts have been made to develop dive tourism, with more than 200 wrecks off the shores of the peninsula, and there have been discussions on building a 645-berth yacht marina in Çanakkale, the focus remains on short-stay tourism. With the region drawing increasing numbers of visitors, the real challenge in the lead up to the centenary of the Gallipoli Campaign will be to convert volume into staying power.