Erciyes set to become one of Europe’s best ski destinations: Kayseri mayor
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Suffering from a lack of promotion despite its diverse tourist attractions, the Kayseri Municipality is seeking to increase its share in tourism by highlighting the city’s assets starting from its ski center in the nearby Mount Erciyes. “Our slogan is: ‘We are the closest ski resort to you,’” says Mayor Mustafa Çelik, adding: “Once you’re at the airport, it takes 25 minutes to be in the ski slopes.”
Tell us about the municipality’s tourism promotion campaign.
Until now, we have not succeeded in packaging the city’s touristic identity well and offering it as a product to the tourism market. The city has tourist attractions with its historical richness and natural beauty and is ready to cater to tourists with its accommodation capacity and touristic enterprises, but the promotion part has been missing.
What do you think makes Kayseri attractive for tourists?
There are only three covered bazaars still functioning in Turkey. One of them is in Kayseri, while the others are in Istanbul and the Marmara province of Bursa. We are talking about a city with 6,000 years of history.
When you stand in the Republic square, at the center of the city, and turn around 360 degrees, you will see the marks of the city’s 6,000-year-old history. In one corner you will see a Roman-era tomb, while in another one we have a castle dating back to the Byzantium times. You can see the footsteps of more than five civilizations including the Seljuks and the Ottomans. Excavations in Kültepe [20 kilometers northeast of the city] have been continuing for 60 years. It is one of the first settlements in Anatolia. Even though the Culture and Tourism Ministry is continuing the excavation works, it has been progressing very slowly. So we, as the municipality, started backing the excavations there. We are also supporting another excavation: The palace of Alaaddin Kayqubat, a Seljuk sultan. Kayseri was once one of the most important centers of the Seljuks.
How about the legacy of non-Muslim groups?
The Mother Mary Church previously used to belong to the Sports Ministry, but it was in sad shape. We took over from the ministry and started restoration works, which will probably finish in a month or two. It will become a library. The Surp Krikor Lusavorich Armenian Church was also in very bad shape. I visited it with Zadık Toker, the head of the church’s foundation. I told him we needed to protect this church, but also said we had limited resources. It is an important place; we want it to become one of Kayseri’s tourist attractions. We started restoration projects there, too.
Kayseri is one of the cities that once had a big Armenian community.
Not only Armenian but Greek too. There are some Greek churches as well, some of which have been turned into mosques.
I understand you are trying to undertake restoration works but you have limited budget.
Indeed. The tender for the restoration of the [Byzantium] castle’s walls cost 15 million Turkish Liras. We did not say: ‘We are the municipality, this is not our job.’ On the contrary, we think this will add an additional value to the city. We also have the mission to contribute to the economic growth of the city, too.
For instance, it has also been a city receiving Syrian refugees. Before, our industrialists could not find people to employ.
So, you are claiming that you are not unhappy with the Syrian refugees?
There are around 70,000 Syrian refugees in Kayseri. We are the ninth or 10th city in Turkey with the largest number of Syrian refugees. This is nearly 5 percent of the city’s entire population. This is a reality, and that is why we have conducted a research because we believe we have to live together with the Syrian refugees. That, again, is not part of my work. But we have conducted a research and sociologists have asked them all sorts of questions to understand their situation, from their level of education to where they are receiving assistance from. And we had a workshop, which will be followed by a report including a list of advises to better situations in order to live together with Syrians. Obviously most will leave when things get better in their country but there will be others who will stay. The other day, someone told me he would have closed his farm had he not found a Syrian shepherd.
Coming back to the tourism issues; what is the profile of the tourists you are targeting for?
The best product we can offer to the market is Mount Erciyes and winter sports. Tourists from Europe, the Middle East and China can all come. We do not want to focus on one target, because once there are diplomatic tensions, tourist arrivals halt instantly. We want to diversify our audience in order to avoid being dependent on one place.
Why should a foreign skier come to Kayseri?
First of all, we say this is the closest ski center to them. In terms of transportation, flying to Kayseri is very easy. Once you arrive at the airport, you are on the ski slopes after 25 minutes, whereas in some places in Europe, it takes two hours to get to a ski resort.
It is genuinely a ski center. Some ski resorts have a hotel with one gondola lift in the slopes and you can ski 1.5 or 2 kilometers only. The accommodation centers are dispersed and you get one ticket from one hotel to ski in that area and you need another ticket from the other hotel to ski on the other side of the mountain. But Erciyes A.Ş., a company entirely run by the municipality, allows you to use all the slopes on the mountains with just one ticket. We have a mechanical system connecting an area of 120-kilometer with slopes with different levels of difficulties. We offer guaranteed snow season as we have 154 snow-producing machines.
Sometimes you might not be able to ski for the whole week because of severe weather conditions. So you can then visit the city’s tourist attractions instead of getting stuck in the hotel. Or you can also visit Cappadocia.
How involved are locals in winter sports? In Turkey leisure activities normally consist of going outdoors for picnic to have a barbecue.
There is a culture being established in terms of skiing and outdoor sports, and it has been becoming widespread in the course of the last five years. We try to contribute to the city’s sports activities through our Sports A.Ş. Company. We provide skiing lessons to preschool children. We also need to raise athletes that will attain international successes. The women’s basketball team of Abdullah Gül University plays high up in the league. We have a world champion in archery.
Tourism means gastronomy too. How do you think we fare there?
We have a very strong culinary tradition. We are very good with mantı [Turkish ravioli-like dumplings filled with small minced meat] and pastırma [dried cured beef with spicy coating]. The problem we suffered in our city is our understanding that hosting a guest outside is not seen as hospitable behavior. Traditionally, if you have guests over you host them at home and cook for them. That has prevented the development of restaurants in the city. But since we know its importance for tourism, we have been encouraging the opening of large dining places.
Kayseri is known to be a conservative city; there are very few places serving alcohol.
The private sector justifiably invests where it sees profits, as alcohol consumption is less in the local market, we have a few places serving alcohol. But there is no problem in terms of touristic places serving alcohol, whereas, as you said, in the markets downtown you can’t find such places.
Does that mean that due to the pressure from the locals the municipality remains distant to places serving alcohol, or even obstructs the opening of such places?
If you go see Kızılırmak Street you will find that there are restaurants which serve alcohol. If we had an obstructive attitude, we would not have had these places. We do not have such concerns; on the contrary, if you want to increase your share in tourism you have to provide places which cater to the demands of tourists, we even encourage investors to come open hotels and restaurants.
WHO IS MUSTAFA ÇELİK?
Çelik was one of the founders of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). He was the party’s district head in Kayseri’s Kocasinan between 2001 and 2004. Between 2005 and 2009, he served as the deputy head of the party’s provincial branch in charge of organization. After 2009, he served as the head of its disciplinary board. He is also a board member of a foundation supporting Abdullah Gül University.
Çelik was elected as the mayor of Kocasinan in the March 2015 local elections, and was elected as the mayor of Kayseri at the municipal assembly’s elections in February 2015, when his predecessor Mehmet Özhaseki - now the Environment and Urban Planning Minister - resigned to become a parliamentary candidate in the June 2015 general elections.