First Russian tourist flight since crisis lands in Turkish resort
ISTANBUL - Agence France-PresseThe first Russian flight carrying package tourists to Turkey since a diplomatic crisis erupted eight months ago landed on July 9 in the Turkish Mediterranean resort of Antalya.
The Rossiya Airlines plane touched down at Antalya's international airport at around 7:30 a.m., after President Vladimir Putin last month officially lifted restrictions on tourism to Turkey as part of a normalisation of ties.
The Boeing 737-800 plane, flying from Moscow's Vnukovo airport, was carrying 189 tourists, NTV television said.
Russia had banned the sale of agency tours to Turkey as retaliation for Ankara shooting down a Russian warplane in November on the Syrian border.
The move dealt a crushing blow to the Turkish tourism industry, which is hugely reliant on Russian tourists especially on its Mediterranean coast.
In May, overall foreign visitor numbers to Turkey plunged 34.7 percent but the number of Russians visiting fell 91.8 percent from a year earlier, official statistics said.
According to Antalya airport, the number of Russian tourists had dropped 98.5 percent in June along with a general decline in tourism.
Visitors have reported seeing luxury resorts around Antalya tailor-made for Russians -- including a replica of Moscow's St Basil's Cathedral by a swimming pool in one hotel -- to be near deserted.
However Putin on June 30 lifted the ban on the sale of tours and ordered charter flights from Russia to Turkey to resume.
His move came after President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sent a letter to Putin that Moscow said contained an apology for the downing of the jet.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev on July 8 gave ministries a week to draw up coordinated proposals on resuming charter flights to Turkey.
But he said there needed to be "special attention on the need for additional measures to enhance transport security and prevent flights to regions with a high terrorist threat.”
Underlining the importance of the flight on July 9, a special ceremony was laid on for the new arrivals with the surprised passengers handed flowers after stepping off the plane and serenaded with music.
The deputy governor of Antalya, Mehmet Yavuz, said it was better to describe the arrival as a "charter-like flight" as while Moscow had allowed the selling of tours, it was still to give formal approval for charter flights.
"As you know, a charter flight is one that has been rented by a tourist company. This was a normal airline flight," said Yavuz, who is responsible for the airport.
A spokesperson for Rossiya Airlines told AFP in Moscow said the flight was the "first of the 2016 summer season" by the airline from Moscow to Antalya and had been performed with the full cooperation of the Turkish authorities.
The head of Antalya's airport, Osman Serdar, acknowledged the tourist season had started in a "troubled way" and was happy to see the Russians arriving.
"We are seeing the first group of Russian tourists arrive. This will continue to increase and we definitely don't want to have these kinds of troubles again," he told reporters in Antalya.