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Visa-free travel boosts Gaziantep economy

ISTANBUL - Referans | 2/1/2010 12:00:00 AM | AYTEN GÜVENKAYA

The government’s drive to cancel visa requirements with neighboring countries has boosted the economies of border cities, best exemplified by Gaziantep and its biggest shopping center, Sanko Park. The number of Syrians visiting the mall has jumped to 50,000 per month, up from around 3,000

The abolishment of visa requirements between Turkey and Syria in September has made Turkey’s southeastern city of Gaziantep a nearby “shopping haven” for Syrians. Citizens from the Arab state have been flocking to Gaziantep with both their own cars and tour operators for Friday and Saturday shopping trips.

The number of Syrian visitors to Sanko Park, the largest shopping center in the city, has increased from 3,000 to 50,000 per month. In response, mall announcements are now made in Turkish, English and Arabic while employees are learning the language so as to offer better services to their southern customers. A “tax-free” office has also been opened to provide immediate tax refunds.

“As the Gaziantep Chamber of Industry [or GSO] we held talks and took two busloads of businesspeople to Aleppo in cooperation with the Aleppo Chamber of Industry just days ago,” GSO Chairman Nejat Koçer said. “We believe trade relations with Syria will boom soon.”

Government policies that have lifted visa restrictions between the two neighbors have contributed to the economies of border cities. The boom in tourism between the two has also been reflected in shopping relations.

Most of the visitors that accounted for a 39-percent increase in mall business during the November to January period were Syrians, according to Emre Şen, director-general of Sanko Park.

The mall is managed by Jones Lang LaSalle, a global real estate services firm specializing in commercial property management, leasing and investment management.

Noting that Syrians have virtually “settled” in Turkey following the end of visa requirements, Şen said visitors from the Arab neighbor are “catching the future.”

Syrian people are effectively “traveling through time” by taking the 110-kilometer road north, Şen said. “They are mostly interested in technology products as guaranteed sales have a big role. In addition to this, they are doing every kind of shopping in large fashion stores.”

Noting the increase in Arabic service to help the changing customer base, Şen said: “We are teaching Arabic to nearly 2,000 workers at Sanko Park Akademi, founded recently to improve our communication. All the announcements at the center are made in Arabic as well as Turkish and English.”

Şen further highlighted the improved commercial relations. “Before, Syrians were only able to get their tax refunds after they returned to their country. But now we are providing them cash just after their shopping with our tax-free implementation. We expect this will bring 15 percent in additional revenues to our sales.”

[HH] Increase in store turnover

“Forty percent of our daily turnover is being generated by Syrian women,” said Mehmet Bahadır, manager of Mudo, a leading retailer offering clothing, accessories, furniture and home decoration products.

Noting that more than half of the Syrian visitors coming to Gaziantep are women, he said, “There are customers who buy goods worth 2,500 Turkish Liras at one time.”

Before the visa arrangement, department store YKM had 350 registered Syrian customers, but this figure increased to 1,200 afterwards, according to store manager Ali Omak.

“We quadrupled the number of our costumers within two or three months. While 350 customers were visiting YKM once in a year, 1,200 customers are now shopping bi-monthly. They now form 8 percent of our total turnover. Other than cosmetics products – for which they can find better prices in Syria – they are buying every type of products. They are mostly interested in shoes and sports products. Women’s clothing products are selling a lot although sales are weak in men’s and children’s wear,” Omak said.

“Turkey’s exports to Syria will total $1 billion within the next four to five years. We will open to the Arab world through Syria. The frontier of the European Union will be Gaziantep soon. This visa policy should be implemented for Iran and Georgia also,” said Nejat Koçer, chairman of the Gaziantep Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Noting that visits from Syria to Şanlıurfa also increased three-fold with the removal of visa requirements, Eyüp Sabri Ertekin, chairman of the Şanlıurfa Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said: “We are not as lucky as Gaziantep, however. The closest Syrian city to Gaziantep is Aleppo, which has the wealthiest population in Syria. But al-Rakka, having a relatively lower income, is near to Şanlıurfa. And we do not have a large shopping center like they have in Gaziantep.”

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