Turn Gezi into tourism asset by promoting democratic Turkey
ISTANBUL - Hürriyet Daily News
What İstanbul lacks most are green spaces, says Timur Bayındır. ‘Tourists look for paces where they can breath. Unfortunately, the trend in Istanbul is toward more concrete,’ adds Bayındır. DAILY NEWS photo, Emrah GÜRELTurkey missed the opportunity to turn the Gezi incidents to its advantage in terms of attracting tourists due to a complete lack of crisis management, according to the head of the Touristic Hotels and Investors Associations (TUROB).
The country could have promoted itself as a democratic nation with an effective PR campaign but did not, Timur Bayındır told the Hürriyet Daily News.
What was the picture for this year’s tourism industry before the Gezi events?
There was a superb picture for Turkey and Istanbul, as we had registered a 15 to 20 percent increase on the number of travelers, as well as reservations at hotels in comparison to last year. We had therefore started thinking this would be a year of records.
To what do you attribute this hike?
For many years, we neglected to promote Turkey and Istanbul. Recently, we have focused on promotions on a regional basis. As a hotels union, we participate in 30 fairs each year. High customer satisfaction also played a role.
Do you believe the fact that Turkey has projected a high profile in the international arena has had an impact?
Certainly; to the degree a country is strong and its people are happy, that increases its tourist attraction.
When the Gezi protests started, was the impact felt immediately?
When it first started, it looked very charming. These types of things happen abroad as wall; students take to the streets or some groups protest. It happens in Spain, Italy and France. This does not frighten anybody. Obviously some extremists mingle with them to widen the incidents. At the beginning there was not much, just a few tents – but then the banners [of illegal organizations] were hung over the [Atatürk Cultural Center overlooking Taksim Square], and paving stones were removed. Clashes started and, unfortunately, innocent people also suffered.
If all these things had not happened, if there had not been an atmosphere of conflict, the impact would not have been so big. When Taksim started to be flooded with gas and water, this frightened off both Turks and foreigners. They first left the area around Taksim Square and went to hotels in the vicinity.
So customers have not fled Turkey. But the incidents began to be increasingly repeated. I actually see a lot of mistakes in the Turkish press. If you avoid covering some events, others [foreigners] will come and start covering for themselves. And they start making exaggerated broadcasts. They won’t show the innocent student with a tent but those throwing bombs or people with hatchets. Do you remember the picture about the girl [in the black dress being doused by the water cannon]? That picture was really cute, and the resistance was actually that, but we have turned the resistance into a fight.
So you are also holding some extremists responsible for the deterioration of the situation.
The thing is, the police know the marginals. It does not come to me and arrest me as a marginal.
Then you admit that the police used disproportionate force.
Yes, that’s my view. The police could have differentiated the marginals and picked them out from the other protesters.
How do you measure the net impact?
We had a survey a week after the incidents and the information was not bright. [Occupancy was down] 80 percent around Taksim area and 50 percent around the Beyazıt area and 30 percent on the Anatolian side. So when you add this up, it means that half of our guests have fled and what’s important, future reservations were cancelled.
Had the Turkish press provided correct coverage, we would not have given way to this propaganda. Some friends say, let’s not say anything [to the tourists]. I was against that view. This would have been a lie. People saw what happened. Yes there were some incidents, there was a somewhat harsh approach to these incidents, it was a bit frightening, but these are democratic incidents that happen everywhere in the world. We could have converted a disadvantageous situation into an advantageous one. But who can do that? I can’t do it. Turkey has to work with a PR company to turn this situation into an advantage.
But how could this have turned into an advantage?
By saying Turkey has used its democratic right; that there is a young, vibrant IT generation in Turkey, et cetera. It is the job of the PR companies to come up with ideas.
It seems the government focused on the security issue, ignoring the tourism sector. I guess the Tourism Ministry did not show good crisis management.
Leave aside “good.” It did not show any kind of management. After we started making calls and the incidents started to calm down, the ministry’s undersecretary went to Germany and Russia. But tourists from these countries come with tours and it seems they were not influenced at all. Approximately 30 million tourists come to Turkey. Nearly 10 million come to Istanbul. Most come by way of the Internet, or they have been here before; in other words, it is based on individual initiative. In addition there are big events, like conferences and meetings that play a role in Istanbul’s tourism sector. They are organized by big companies; we needed to get in touch with them; we needed a global approach.
What is the mood in the hotel sector; are they angry, do they see the protesters as extremists?
No they are not. But obviously many wish it had not happened, otherwise we would have had a much better season. But there are reasons for everything. Today you can’t even force your children to get a haircut.
You said there was a resistance there; do you use this with a positive connotation or negative one?
If these are protests which are not harmful, then they are legitimate; it is a constitutional right.
What are the lessons we should draw from the incidents? You said it yourself, protests happen in other parts of the world, but others’ tourism sectors are not harmed as much.
In some places, governments come up and say “you are right” and end the incidents. There is dialogue. In our case, there is no possibility of dialogue. This is our biggest handicap.
Are these incidents over?
No, they are not over. Some people believe there has been an intervention into their lifestyles, and there is unfortunately polarization.
Do you think things are getting back to normal?
There is a rule in the military; it is not only important to get hold of a place but to keep it. It seems there is such a mentality now.
What would contribute more to tourism in Taksim; having a park or a shopping mall?
Istanbul’s biggest lack is green spaces. The lack of green spaces is not good for tourism. Tourists look for places where they can breathe a little. Parks are among the essential elements of cities. Unfortunately, the trend in Istanbul is toward more concrete.
How will Istanbul’s fast transformation affect tourism?
Somethings have a negative impact abroad. When you remove tables where you can consume alcohol from the street, people abroad think there is a radical administration in Turkey trying to ban alcohol.
Travel and tourism is not just about visiting a mosque while staying in a hotel; it is also about eating, drinking and mingling into the life of the country you visit; you can mingle through wining and dining.
How is the picture nowadays, after Gezi incidents?
There are positive signs. We hope we will pick up following bayram.
Who is Timur Bayındır?
Timur Bayındır is currently the director of the board of Touristic Hotels and Investors Association (TUROB).
He was elected as director of the board for the fourth consecutive time in the last elections held in 2010.
A graduate of Galatasaray High School, Bayındır studied tourism in France in the late 1960s before obtaining a journalism degree in 1970.
He is a member of the Association of Turkish Travel Agencies (TÜRSAB) and SKAL, a professional organization of tourism leaders around the world promoting global tourism.
Bayındır is also a scholar at the Istanbul and Marmara universities, as well as a member of the Galatasaray Association and the Kalamış Sailing Club.