Maturing gracefully: Aspiring to become a year-round destination through niche offerings

With official figures from 2012 showing foreign arrivals continuing to edge upwards, year-on-year, Turkey has maintained its status as a leading global tourism destination. Indeed, the sector has shown little slowdown despite the economic troubles of its most active market, Europe. Yet there are challenges, not least of which is the way in which rapid growth has threatened the integrity of environmental, cultural and historical sites.

“Rapid expansion in the sector has put increased pressure on our sensitive ecological and historical areas,” Vural Öger, founder of Öger Tours, told OBG. “Indeed, there is a danger that policymakers and industry stakeholders are focused on short-term profits at the expense of long-term sustainability,” he added.

The sector also needs to diversify its offerings. Thus, tourism professionals are looking ahead, both to the goals laid out under Tourism Strategy 2023 – the year of the Turkish republic’s centennial – and to more immediate targets. These include more focus on new segments, away from mass market tourism towards niche areas that generate greater revenue, such as: medical tourism; yachting; golf; meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions (MICE); trade; and cultural tourism.

Sector Bodies

Leading this move is a combination of national and local government policy and private sector interests. At the national level, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism (MoCT) uses the Tourism Encouragement Law and the law governing the foundation and duties of the MoCT as its legal umbrella.

At present, the MoCT plays a much more proactive role in the sector’s development than it has done in the past, mostly because the ministry concluded in its Tourism Strategy 2023 – a master plan set out in 2007 for sector development up to the centennial – that some of the most important challenges in creating a more sustainable and value-added industry revolved around a general lack of strategic planning. This had resulted in an over-concentration of tourism resources in certain areas – notably the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts – with consequent environmental and other sustainability issues. This has also led to infrastructure bottlenecks and a deterioration in the quality of provision, not to mention neglecting other areas with strong tourism potential.

According to Öger, while a number of tourist sites are becoming overcrowded, there is now greater focus on balancing preservation with that of sector expansion. At the same time, he noted that it is more than just a numbers game or long-term development goals, but rather to preserve the attractions that bring visitors from across the globe to Turkey in the first place.

The MoCT has also set up a National Tourism Certification (NTC) body to make sure that tourism professionals and establishments meet high standards. A tourism education steering committee and a tourism research steering committee are also now entering the fray to increase professionalism. The NTC has many professional bodies from which to draw its private sector representatives, too. The Turkish Tourism Investors Association (TYD), the Association of Turkish Travel Agencies, the Turkish Hotels Federation, the Federation of Turkish Tourist Guide Associations and many others are in the field. Local and national chambers of commerce are also important players here, along with environmental groups such as the TEMA Foundation, which campaigns for reforestation and against soil erosion – a pressing challenge in many parts of the country.

Plans & Strategies

Speaking in Alanya in 2008, the then-minister of culture and tourism, Ertuğrul Günay (replaced in January 2013 by Ömer Çelik), told ruling party members that the government had set a target of 50m visitors by 2023. The administration has also outlined the goal of Turkey becoming the fifth-largest tourism destination worldwide by the centennial and to reap TL50bn (€21.59bn) in revenue.

To achieve this target, the 2023 master plan starts out with an examination of the country’s tourism potential, focusing on areas away from the existing mass-market industry of sun, sea and sand. This mass tourism has been extraordinarily successful, though. According to MoCT figures, between 2001 and 2011, the number of foreign arrivals in the country went up 170.7%, from 11.62m to 31.46m. Tourism receipts over the same decade jumped 170%, from €7.99bn to €21.5bn, meaning that Turkey went from receiving 1.4% of the world’s total foreign arrivals and 1.6% of its total receipts to 3.0% and 2.7% respectively, in just 10 years.

Provisional data from the MoCT shows a total of 31.78m foreign arrivals in 2012, up 1.04% on the 2011 total. The peak months were, as usual, July and August, coinciding with school holidays in Europe and Russia. In July 2012, the monthly arrivals figure peaked for the year at 4.59m, up from 4.36m the year before. The low season is January-February, with arrivals dropping to less than 1m per month, in January 2012 to a monthly low of 981,611. Typically, international arrivals have historically entered the country at Istanbul, which received 29.52% of the total (9.38m) in 2012.

On The Rise

For many years, there were no direct flights internationally to provinces outside of Istanbul, with the city’s Atatürk Airport serving all destinations, including Ankara. Now though, additional airports can also be accessed directly from many countries, with Antalya in particular on the rise, beating Istanbul in 2012 to become the most popular gateway to Turkey, with 32.4% of all arrivals (10.3m) that year.

Other popular entry points in 2012 were Muğla province – on the Aegean coast, the gateway to popular destinations such as Bodrum, which took 9.4% of all arrivals (2.99m); Edirne province, the main land crossing into Turkey from Europe, with 8.49% of all arrivals (2.7m); and Artvin province, the main Caucasian crossing in the north-east, which took 4.77% of all incoming foreigners (1.52m). Broadly speaking, the western and southern coast is where the highest concentration of visitor accommodation is to be found.

The latest available MoCT statistics, for 2011, show Istanbul as home to 9.1% of all municipality-licensed accommodation establishments in the country, with 810, providing 9% of all beds, at 45,720. Antalya, meanwhile, had 11.5% of the establishments, at 1028, and 18.7% of the beds, at 94,501. Muğla was higher still, at 17.5% of all establishments, at 1559, yet lower at 16.8% in terms of beds, at 85,120. Add in Izmir and Aydın, and these five provinces accounted for 49.3% of all municipality-licensed establishments and 55.1% of all beds in the country. In addition, there are also MoCT-licensed establishments. While the latest figures for these are from 2010, a similar pattern occurs and the same five destinations account for 64.4% of all MoCT-licensed establishments nationwide, and 80% of all beds.

In terms of capacity utilisation, this is highly seasonal in most resorts, with a major challenge being to ensure more year-round use. Market monitoring agency MKG Hospitality gave a figure of 64.2% occupancy, as a nationwide average for Turkey in 2012, which it included in its Middle East and North Africa (MENA) survey.

Closing The Gap

In MENA, Turkey had the third-highest occupancy rate, behind Qatar (67.4%) and the UAE (76.65%). A statement from the MoCT in June 2012 said that Turkey was fourth in Europe at that time for occupancy, after the UK, France and Germany. Indeed, in 2011, Turkey overtook the UK for fifth position in most visitors in the world, though the UK regained this in 2012 with the London Olympics. There are likely wide variations between regions, particularly between Istanbul, which has a year-round industry, supplemented by increasing demand for business travel as the economy grows, and other, more seasonally-oriented resort areas.

“We tend to divide Turkey into three segments. Istanbul – which is the focus for every major brand; then the regional cities, of which there are 23 in Turkey with a population of more than 1m; then the resorts, mainly running from Izmir to Muğla to Antalya”, Tuğrul Temel, director of development at Hilton Worldwide, told OBG. “Antalya is now the third-most-visited city in the world, and Istanbul, the ninth,” he added. The foreigners visiting these places, and the hotels and pensions within them, come from a wide variety of countries, with Germany taking the top position for the last three years.

In 2010, German nationals constituted 15.32% of all arrivals, at 4.39m, rising to 15.34% in 2011, with 4.83m. In 2012, provisional MoCT figures show 15.82% and 5.03m arrivals, with a number of these visitors, in fact, German nationals of Turkish origin. Second for the last three years has been Russia, which took 10.85% of the total in 2010, or 3.11m, rising to 11.03%, or 3.47m in 2011, then 11.33% in 2012, or 3.6m. In third place has been the UK, which took 9.34% in 2010, or 2.67m, 8.21% in 2011, or 2.58m, and 7.73% in 2012, or some 2.46m.

In common with the UK, other top-10 countries in recent years that have seen declining numbers are Bulgaria, which went from 5.01% to 4.69% over the three years; Iran, which saw its share fall from 6.58% to 3.73%, and Syria, which saw its share drop from 3.14% to 2.3%, owing mostly to the ongoing civil unrest there.

Global Appeal

Countries that have seen an increase over the previous three years include Georgia, jumping from 3.88% to 4.42%; the Netherlands, rising from 3.75% to 4.01%; France, up from 3.24% to 3.25%; and the US, up from 2.24% to 2.43%. The total share of “others” – those countries not previously listed in the top 10 – also rose over the three years, from 36.64% to 40.29%, showing a broadening of Turkey’s global appeal as a tourism destination. Particular standouts include the former Soviet countries – up from 20.55% in 2010 to 21.68% – and from African countries – rising from 2.4% to 4.36% – and the Middle East – up from 11.75% to 14.63%. Latin American countries also saw their slice of the pie grow, although total numbers remained relatively small, at 165,966. South, South-east Asia and the East Asia, however, showed a decline, although China saw a modest increase, owing partly to higher disposable incomes and growing business travel.

Reading Between The Lines

While arrival numbers have been increasing, the amount each visitor spends had been showing a downward trend until 2012. Figures released by the MoCT and Turkstat, the government statistical institute, showed that per person receipts from visitors stood at €649in 2003, with this dropping to €626 by 2008, then €594 in 2011. However, this number climbed slightly in 2012 to €609.

Following the lead of the World Tourism Organisation and the European Statistics Office, a new method of calculating tourism revenues and expenditures was introduced in early 2013, which met sector professionals’ predictions that the new methodology would show a generally higher level of per visitor spend. Indeed, based on the revised tourism revenues, the average per capita expenditure in 2012 showed an increase of €123.

“The challenge for us is to increase this spending,” Levent Egeli, general secretary of TYD, said to OBG. “If we can grow in areas like golfing and cultural tourism, we should show a higher spend per tourist, as these kinds of visitors tend to spend a lot more,” he added.

Indeed, the majority of the tourists arriving follow the traditional holiday pattern for a country marketed as a destination for sun, sea and sand. As such, packages tend to be low-end in pricing, with tourists enjoying half or full board, and travelling little from their hotels.

Strength In Depth

The 2023 strategy now being deployed by the MoCT thus recognises that the future of the sector lies in more sustainable and higher-value varieties of tourism, coupled with strategic planning, research and development, the restoration and enhancement of existing tourist areas, the strengthening of the transport infrastructure, better branding and marketing, and a boosting of domestic tourism.

In particular, the plan has prioritised the development of a number of geographical areas – known as tourism development areas, corridors and cities, along with ecotourism zones – and a number of tourism themes, namely health and thermal tourism, winter sports, golf tourism, yacht tourism, cultural and ecotourism, and MICE tourism. The themes and areas are designed to intersect to produce competitive advantages. Thus, city tourism, which is already prominent in Istanbul, is to be encouraged in Izmir, Antalya and Ankara, where existing cultural and historical features can be more widely promoted. At the same time, a range of smaller, less well-known cities – Adıyaman, Amasya, Bursa, Edirne, Gaziantep, Hatay, Konya, Kutahya, Manisa, Nevşehir, Kars, Mardin, Sivas, Şanl›urfa and Trabzon – have been given a promotional boost, along with funds for restoration of monuments and the construction of new cultural venues, with each also being designated in turn, annually, a City of Cultural Tourism.


At the same time, the 2023 plan outlines the development of 10 other tourism cities. These are spread across the country, from İğneada – the Kıyıköy Ecotourism City on the European Black Sea coast – to the Anamur Coastline Tourism City, east of Antalya.

All these lesser-known sites are also receiving infrastructure investment to boost transport connectivity and quality, while some also qualify for government investment incentives. For some years, Turkey has been divided up into investment zones, with those in the less popular south and south-east receiving better tax incentives for those locating there (see Economy Chapter). Tourism projects can also qualify for incentives on land allocation, value-added tax exemption, loans, interest rate subsidies, corporate tax exemptions, employment and other incentives, including tax exemptions on imports and property. Some 347 investment incentive certificates were granted to the sector in 2011 – the last year for which figures were available – out of a total 4618 granted to all economic sectors that year. In 2010, these were 310 and 4289, respectively.

Health and thermal tourism is also promising (see analysis). Regarding the latter, Turkey is already the first in Europe for the sheer number of thermal springs, and among the top seven in the world, with over 1300. Many of these springs also have ancient historical sites around them, adding a cultural dimension.

Winter tourism, meanwhile, has considerable potential. In addition to the more well-known slopes around Bursa, Bolu and İzmit, respectively, Turkey can also offer resorts near Kayseri, where the pistes follow the slopes of the 3916-metre Mount Erciyes, and Palandöken and Konak, near Erzurum. The latter have long been state property, although in March 2013, the Privatisation Administration announced that Palandöken, which has 17 individual pistes, and Konak would soon be privatised. This would be the first stage of a general privatisation of ski assets countrywide.


Golf tourism is undergoing global growth and becoming more popular, particularly in Asia. Turkey has been boosting its global golf profile in recent times, hosting Tiger Woods in the Turkish Airlines World Golf Final in October 2012, with Istanbul, Antalya and Kuşadas› the regions with the most courses. New courses are expected to open in 2013 and 2014 in the Denizli and Muğla regions, close to major Aegean tourism resorts such as Bodrum and Marmaris.

Yachting tourism, meanwhile, can also benefit from marinas along the coast to “blue voyage tours” on Aegean gulets (boats). Further, cruise ship tourism is also receiving a boost, with Trabzon, Samsun, Kuşadas›, Antalya and Mersin all developing their infrastructure. Istanbul is also a major cruise liner destination, and a venue for several yacht marinas, with facilities in Antalya and Izmir also raising the status of the yacht trade.

As for cultural and religious tourism, the country is home to a vast array of ancient Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman and Biblical sites, as well as some of the most important Islamic monuments and holy places in the world. Getting more visitors to spectacular, yet lesser-known sites in the eastern and south-eastern parts of the country remains a challenge, however, given poor infrastructure and ongoing security concerns.

At the same time, ecotourism aims to capitalise on the great biodiversity within the country’s boundaries, from Black Sea forests to the plains of Harran. Many of the most spectacular nature escapes are in areas of little tourism development too, while an emphasis on ecotourism also offers hope to more-visited resort areas now blighted by unsustainable development.

Perhaps most surprisingly, Turkey has also seen remarkable growth in “soap opera tourism”. A number of Turkish television dramas are broadcast internationally and are particularly popular in the Middle East and North Africa. Visitors from this region often include organised excursions to locations featured in the soap operas as part of their trip to Turkey.


The Tourism Strategy 2023 is ambitious, with the 50m-visitor target around 20m higher than current figures. In past years, however, the numbers have grown at a heady rate – the 170.7% increase between 2001 and 2011 being a case in point. “Turkey’s goal to become the fifth-largest tourism destination by 2023 is realistic,” Cemal Hoşgul, general manager of Hilton Garden Inn Istanbul Golden Horn, told OBG. Yet there are some caveats. “Developing current infrastructure is a major challenge,” he added, “especially in a context of rapid urban development which makes it difficult to plan ahead and prepare for the future.” There is also the ongoing issue of the economic slowdown in Europe. More active marketing in emerging countries elsewhere may therefore be a good strategy in such times.


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The Report: Turkey 2013

Tourism chapter from The Report: Turkey 2013

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