All quiet on the (south) western front
It really is all quiet in Marmaris, where I am writing this column.
After a stellar start to the season, tourist arrivals dropped off sharply in the second half of July, and most hotels are only one-half to two-thirds full. As a result, not only hotels, bars and restaurants, but many other businesses that depend on the “industry without a chimney,” as tourism is affectionately called in Turkey, are suffering as well. I was the sole customer at my neighborhood barbershop today.
There is of course the Ramadan effect: Many Turks do not vacation in the holy month. But there has also been a decline in visitors from the United Kingdom, who make up the bulk of tourists in Marmaris, as you can see from bars with such creative names as “Anfield” and “Old Trafford” as well as tattoo parlors offering to brand British holiday-makers with the insignia of their favorite football team -- nothing compared to your friendly neighborhood economist’s black eagle.
If other summer destinations are in a similar situation, the earlier pick-up in tourist arrivals might have come to a halt. From January to April, international arrivals contracted 5.5 percent compared to the same period in 2011. In the same four months, global tourist arrivals were up 5.4 percent, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO). After dropping 1.5 percent in May, Turkish arrivals finally rose 2.7 percent in June.
Even if yearly growth numbers turn out to be in positive territory for the rest of the year, the expected surge in tourism won’t materialize. Many in the sector were claiming Turkey would snatch a lot of business from Greece. Travelers did indeed avoid Greece after the social unrest, and tour operators are shunning Greek hotels, for fear that a return to the drachma would result in mayhem, but it seems the missing Greek-bound tourists have not ended up in Turkey.
This story reminds me of last year, when everyone was arguing that Turkey would steal scores of tourists from Egypt, thanks to the Arab Spring and Mossad-trained sharks attacking swimmers. That did not materialize, either, as the tourists who visit Sharm el-Sheikh and the Turkish Riviera are very different.
In any event, I am perplexed by this obsession with arrivals numbers. For example, it was touted as a huge success when Turkey climbed one place to sixth in UNWTO 2011 ranking by international tourist arrivals. I think the more interesting statistic is receipts, where Turkey comes in twelfth. This means the country is earning less from each tourist in comparison to other top destinations.
Unfortunately, revenues per tourist have been on a downward trend for a while. Rather than trying to find solutions to Turkey’s emergence as low-cost travel destination, Minister of Tourism (and Culture, too!) Ertuğrul Günay recently declared he was aiming for 33 million tourists and $25 billion in revenues for 2012.
Twelve-month rolling arrivals have passed the 31 million mark, and yearly revenues are at $18.5 billion. If Turkey were to hit Günay’s ambitious targets, it would earn $758 per tourist. The country last had this annual per-person revenue number two years ago.
That would be tough to achieve without a real plan.