How Turkey contributes to democratic income sharing in Greece

How Turkey contributes to democratic income sharing in Greece

Last year, 850,000 Turkish tourists visited Greece; this number is expected to rise to 1 million by the end of this year.

Many Turkish tourists go to Athens and internationally popular islands like Mikonos and Santorini. But a majority prefer going to the closest islands, which takes only an hour or two to reach by ferry, such as Crete, Rhodes, Lesvos, Chios, Kos and others. The number of Turkish tourists traveling to Greece by land has also increased in recent years, with thousands crossing the border to visit cities like Alexandroupolis, Komotini, Kavala and Thessaloniki, the birth place of Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic.

“Turks mostly don't go to Greece’s top touristic destinations. So in a way Turkish tourists contribute to a more democratic tourism income sharing in Greece,” a Turkish official told me. Indeed, less internationally popular tourist sites in Greece are inundated with Turkish tourists. As a result, these places are less affected by the economic crisis that Greece has been struggling with for the past few years.

One of the best consequences of Turkish-Greek rapprochement has been the improvement in both nations’ outlook toward each other. This is particularly true for the Greek side. Over the course of the last 12 months, I have been to three different parts of Greece, and each time I have been pleasantly surprised to see how the Greeks we meet - be they at the border gate, restaurants or in the middle of the street - take pains to speak in Turkish.

My last visit was to Rhodes. Two-and-a-half days was obviously not enough to make a complete tour of the island, but with its immense Ottoman heritage, Rhodes will certainly become a top destination for Turkish tourists. After seeing the rather derelict nature of the Ottoman buildings in Thessaloniki, I was pleasantly surprised by the newly restored mosques I came across in Rhodes' old city. However, yet again to my surprise – this time an unpleasant one – they were not open for visits.

Apparently, as the old city has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1988, these mosques have benefited from the wider restoration that has taken place inside the old city. Mosques that are outside the old city are not so lucky. There are also other Ottoman mosques waiting for restoration on other islands that receive Turkish tourists, such as Kos and Lesvos. According to Turkish officials, there are at least 80 Ottoman monuments on the islands that need restoration.

Turkish officials told me that Greek governments have a generally positive attitude toward restoring Ottoman monuments, but have financial constraints due to the economic crisis. In fact, the reason why the mosques in Rhodes’ old city are kept closed is also economic, as keeping them open to visitors means additional maintenance costs.

Obviously, there are several churches waiting to be restored in Turkey as well. Forty Greek Orthodox churches have been restored over the past three year, according to Turkish officials, and Ankara and Athens have started cooperating on this issue. They should, however, intensify their work and find creative solutions. Seeing how badly some of the restoration work is done in Turkey, even for historic Ottoman monuments, an exchange of experts who could monitor restoration work is certainly a must. I am sure this could also lead to more joint Turkish-Greek scientific work on history, architecture and archaeology.

How about having Turkish students volunteer in monitoring the visits to the closed mosques in Rhodes during summer time and vice versa? As the saying goes, when there’s a will, there’s a way.