İzmir provides a viable alternative in Turkey: Mayor Kocaoğlu
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Thanks to major investments in infrastructure and environment, İzmir has become a center of attraction not only for tourists but also for individuals and businesses looking to flee the stress of other big cities, said Kocaoğlu, who is a member of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP).
Tell us about your projects to boost tourism in İzmir.
For quality tourism you first need to create a livable city. For that you need to start addressing the shortcomings in the infrastructure. For the past 13 years we have been investing in the environment and we are now ahead of everyone in Turkey in this. We can also compete with many cities in Europe on the subject.
All the tap water in İzmir is purified. When the waste water treatment in four smaller neighborhoods is completed, 85 to 90 percent of waste water will be purified by 2019. As of now, İzmir has realized 20 percent of Turkey’s total biological water purification.
But providing drinkable water, keeping the air and soil clean, and encouraging organic agriculture are not enough. İzmir already has some of the fundamentals of tourism like sun, sand, sea, nature, thermal springs and history. What we have to do is bring these out to the sunlight and make them available to the tourism sector. We don’t want mass tourism, or the “all-inclusive” model. We want tourists to come to visit our historic and natural sites. For example, one of the world’s most important bird havens is in our province. We want people to come to visit our fairs. Health tourism is important for us; we have three medical faculties and two more are coming. Planning for the allocation of a site by the sea for a health village is going on.
Obviously, those who are coming to have fun, or to visit fairs, or to participate in a congress, also want arts and cultural activities. The Ahmet Adnan Saygun Concert Hall, which was opened in 2008, is a world-class concert hall and is the best in Turkey. The tender for an opera building is also done and it will become one of the symbols of İzmir. We need a new theater and a show center and we are planning to have them constructed in the old fair space.
How are you faring with the problems that Turkey has faced in tourism?
İzmir is the city where tourism first started in Turkey. Then there was a pause in terms of tourism, industry, the economy, etc. But since 2010 we have been on a growing trend. İzmir ranked 2nd among the world’s 10 fastest growing metropolitan areas in the Brookings Institution’s 2014 report. We are now focused on fast but healthy growth, but the number of tourists we receive is below our potential. In previous years we used do receive 600,000 cruise tourists, but there has been a sharp drop in that sector. So we are trying to diversify tourism through health and fair tourism. Currently 70 to 80 percent of hotels in the city center are full, which is quite high in view of the general situation of tourism in Turkey.
I understand you are also working to revive the city’s multi-religious heritage.
İzmir is a cosmopolitan city. There is a lifestyle specific to İzmir and at its core is freedom. Everyone fully respects the other’s way of life, their faith or ethnic origin. We have been restoring synagogues in the city. We are trying to unearth our past cultural values. We see our diversity as richness. İzmir is the only city in Turkey that is part of the “Delice” global network of cities whose culinary heritage and gastronomic culture define them as great food destinations. We are supporting food festivals like the Urla artichoke festival. We encourage nature tourism and we have established 450 km walking trails, bicycle trails, and historical trails in the İzmir peninsula.
You have also been working to revive the İzmir international fair. Tell us about it.
The tradition of holding fairs in İzmir started with the republic and we will host the 86th fair this September. They contribute tremendously to the city’s tourism and economy. We are compensating the losses in tourism due to the general situation in Turkey via fair activities. We just had a book fair and next we will have an olive oil fair, followed by the ecology fair. We also hold the world’s third biggest marble fair, as well as Europe’s biggest wedding dress fair.
As of 2004 we have seen that the simple fair premise was no longer sufficient. The new fair premise started two years ago, with investments from the municipality’s resources. Everything was done by the municipality. There was no question of getting support from the central government so we had to do it ourselves.
I understand that while some families are taking the individual decisions to settle in İzmir, some companies are planning to move their headquarters to İzmir. Are you providing any incentive for such moves?
It is natural for labor-incentive operations to be transferred here. It is not only profitable from the perspective of the company but also in terms of more efficient performance from employees. You know about the density in Istanbul. In addition to the transportation problems, Istanbul is also expensive and living in Istanbul is tremendously stressful.
When you live in İzmir, within 40 minutes you can be in a holiday resort like Çeşme. When I first became mayor the rail system was only 11 km. Currently it is 138 km. By end of this year it will be 180 km. With all our investment in the environment, art and culture, the city has become a center of attraction.
While doing all of this, you need to be careful with the budget.
When I took up this position the municipality had a lot of debts. For the first three or four years we had to pay our debts, as well as compulsory investments. We then started saving and using the money in the right way. We had transparent tenders, making engineers compete with each other. I have avoided going into debt for an investment that does not bring in any revenue. So the metro system is paying for itself, for instance. That’s why İzmir has a higher credit rating than that of Turkey.
What are the setbacks of being from the opposition party?
The central government and the municipalities are like flesh and bone, you can’t separate the two. I sit in the most important seat that the opposition party currently holds.
The ruling Justice and Development Party [AKP], which has been successful in successive elections, wants to win in İzmir too, so there is some degree of competition. We have faced tremendous difficulty in some of our projects. One thing is for certain: We never see a quick or efficient process from the bureaucracy in Ankara, unlike the municipalities under the control of the AKP. There are always delays in our cases.
Also, we do not get a single penny from the central government other than what we are supposed to get by law. We actually could get into much more debt, but in order to avoid any financial crisis in the event of extraordinary circumstances we prefer to be cautious.
Who is Aziz Kocaoğlu?
Aziz Kocaoğlu was born in 1948 in Tokat, located in Turkey’s north.He graduated from Ege (Aegean) University’s Economy Faculty in 1973.
After earning an MBA in management from Istanbul University, Kocaoğlu first worked as an accountant in a state institution. After a year in an executive position in the private sector he set up his own business in 1979.
His political career started in the youth organization of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). Between 2001-2003 he worked as deputy head of the CHP’s branch in Bornova, a province of İzmir.
In March 2004 he was elected as Bornova mayor from the CHP, before he was elected unanimously by the city assembly in June 2004 to replace the İzmir metropolitan mayor, who died from a heart attack.
Kocaoğlu was reelected as İzmir mayor in municipal elections held in March 2009, and won again in the March 2014 election for a third consecutive term.