Tourism: An instrument of international politics

Tourism: An instrument of international politics

Kayhan Taner Özen*
Tourism: An instrument of international politics


International tourism has always been a topic of international politics. Because of its international nature, politicians have always tended to use it as an effective instrument for playing in the international arena. 

The recent relaxing of travel restrictions by the United States toward Cuba, with a promise of further easing, is a broadly known example of using tourism as an international political instrument to squeeze another state to implement their own politics. 

Another contemporary case of using international tourism as a political instrument is Russia’s travel ban on Turkey in 2016, after the Turkish army shot down a Russian fighter jet on the Turkish-Syrian border. Instead of implementing military precautions or strategies against Turkey, one of the world’s super powers chose to play the international tourism option, causing a loss in more than 4 million tourists in Turkey’s tourism businesses which is equivalent to $7 billion. The Turkish government’s efforts to lift the ban were only
approved by the Russian regime as of mid- September, which was too late to help this year’s tourist season.

Turkey’s tourism business, and as a result, its broader economy, suffered from conflicts in its region. 

The West’s view on Turkey’s tourism is another issue. Turkish tourist inflow from Western countries for the 2016 season dropped dramatically, almost by 30 percent. This loss has been because of terrorism and political unrest in Turkey. 

We have seen in the world that terrorism and violence cannot coexist with tourism. You can’t expect a family to save up for a year and choose to travel to a destination known for its violent nature and social unrest. No sensible person would put their family at risk for the sake of a paid holiday, which is supposed to be a time of relaxation and bonding.

But is a holiday on the Turkish coasts so risky for tourists? If people want to be realistic, a holiday in the southern resort of Antalya isn’t riskier than competing countries like France, Spain and Greece. But why is western media trumpeting against Turkish tourism? For example, ten days after the Sultanahmet Avenue bombing that happened in front of the Obelix on Jan. 12, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden visited the bombing site. On his way to the Obelix, Mr. Biden and his entourage walked through the Hagia Sophia Mosque, the German Fountain, and the Hürrem Sultan Turkish Bath. The Blue Mosque was in the background. The envoy put flowers by the Obelix. None of those touristic monuments in Mr. Biden’s visit were broadcasted by western mainstream media.  

The same approach was visible in the German media as well. In Germany, the extent of Turkish political problems has been exaggerated. The Turkish president has been portrayed in the German press negatively, and this has inflamed the German public. Turkey used to host 5 million German tourists annually. The German international tourist market is the world’s largest, with an annual spending of $100 billion, sending tourists to destinations all around the world.

In 2015, Turkey’s tourism was ranked 6th in the world with 36.2 million incoming tourists. It seems that the West won this round of the game by taking in many of these tourists. Spain, France, Italy and Greece increased their incoming tourism and revenues. Perhaps this is why, nowadays, nobody talks about the Spanish failure and the Greek economic crisis. German lenders to Greece and Spain must be very happy about these developments too. In the U.S., tourism companies must be happy as well, since the U.S. cruise ship business is soaring. New ship orders are on their way.

Regardless of the reasons behind the current situation, the most important question is what Turkey should do to prevent itself from falling further behind in an increasingly competitive international tourist market? Maybe the answer is for Turkey to engage more with international tourist companies, who would then have “skin in the game” in regards to Turkey’s fortunes.  

As an example, let’s look at Antalya, a premiere holiday tourist destination which has over 700,000 hotel beds but almost no foreign investors like Hilton, Sheraton or Intercontinental. Foreign investors are only represented in the south by their local travel agents such as TUI and others.  Local travel agents declare the losses due to a decrease in tourism, so lost tourist revenue only hurts local investors and the Turkish economy.

If the Turkish authorities want tourism in Turkey to recover and flourish again, as well as have a robust future protected from the inevitable changes in the world economy, they need to invite more foreign investors. This is the best way to prevent further attacks and damage to Turkey’s tourist economy.

* Kayhan Taner Özen is a senior financial analyst at Tourism Loans at the Development Bank of Turkey.