You must be at peace with neighbors to succeed in tourism: Turkish Hoteliers Federation head
ISTANBULTurkey needs to improve its reputation abroad in order to prosper again in its troubled tourism sector, Turkish Hoteliers Federation head Osman Ayık has told the Hürriyet Daily News in an exclusive interview.
“The confidence factor that Turkey projected abroad has eroded. There is a certain perception in Europe about Turkey and arrivals from the continent have seen a sharp decrease. We need to take steps to reverse that trend,” Ayık said, amid ongoing rapprochement between Ankara and neighboring states partly aimed at improving the outlook in the tourism sector.
Tell us about how you are faring this tourism season.
We started to get negative signs by the end of 2014, which was actually the best year in Turkey’s tourism history, in terms of the numbers of tourists and the income levels.
But with the economic difficulties in Russia and crisis in Ukraine we started to see the signals. And with the deterioration of the situation in Syria and terror incidents, 2015 passed with big hardships. For the first time after more than a decade of tremendous boom, in 2015 we faced serious losses. With the refugee crisis as well as the particular incident we lived with Russia, the plane crisis, we were not hopeful for 2016. For certain markets we have losses that vary from 50 percent to 90 percent. The biggest one is the Russian market obviously. 2016 will be a year which we will end with a serious loss of income.
Will reconciliation with Russia be able to compensate for the losses to some degree?
Obviously one is bigger than zero. When the losses are so big, it is not easy to compensate them in short time. When reconciliation started with Russia we said, “This will bring a moral boost today, economic income tomorrow.” We hosted more than 4.5 million Russian tourists in 2014. We reached that number after 25 years and we lost more than 90 percent of that in one year. To get back to these numbers requires serious efforts.
And actually there are only a few months left in this season and there are still uncertainties. There were statements made by Russian President Vladimir Putin that the sanctions were lifted. But when we go down that level, we are still waiting for the implementation. Charter flights have not started yet. I know that there is a Turkish delegation in Russia to make it happen faster. If certain steps that we expect were to be taken, then we are estimating that between 500,000 to 700,000 Russian tourists could come over the rest of the season.
How about next year, will it be difficult to reach 4.5 million tourists from Russia?
I think it will not be easy to see that number in 2017. When there is erosion in relations it is not so easy to repair the damage. According to our estimates it might take two to three years to reach those numbers. This period could be shortened if there were no obstacles, but I think there will be some bureaucratic hurdles.
You seem to feel some dragging of feet on the Russian side.
It is about the structure of the country we are dealing with. Things changed 100 percent from Nov. 24 to Nov. 25 last year after the plane was downed.
So things can improve with the same speed.
That is precisely what I am saying. But for that you need to have the political will.
And you don’t seem to see that political will on the Russian side yet.
I personally don’t. I think there will be some cost. So I think additional steps will be required to be taken. Look, there are three or four important countries in the region. One of them is Turkey. Another one is Russia. From now on there will be many issues where these two countries will have to take joint decisions and joint actions. At a time when the redesigning of the region has started, these two countries will need to act together. It will be to the benefit of both of these two countries and the region if they were to act with great caution.
In the past Turkey and Russia continued to develop their bilateral ties despite their differences over political and regional issues. Do you think this is now over?
I think it is over. The world is going in a very different direction. There are very interesting developments around us. There are problems within the EU. There are power vacuums in our region. Iraq has been a bleeding wound since the 1990’s. 60 million people in the world have been forced to move and seek a better future elsewhere. Terrorism is getting widespread and it is the biggest threat to our industry. The global tourism industry is seriously threatened by terrorism and it will face serious problems in the coming years. That’s why Turkey and Russia need to act together to make things better, especially in our region. We have to get along well with Russia in this region.
Is there resentment in Antalya toward Russian tourists for having deserted Turkey so quickly?
This is something that took place following a political decision. We know that the citizens of Russia have deep sentimental ties with Antalya. For most their first travel abroad was to Antalya; many had their first holiday experience abroad in Antalya. Obviously there were some racists among them who were speaking ill of Turkey. But big crowds have not cut their ties with Turkey. There are so many mixed marriages. And at the end of the day, this break in relations has lasted only six months. Repairing them relations will take time; it will not be fast. But if the two countries were to come together and agree on certain political issues, the improvement in our ties could be much better than we expect.
How is the situation with other markets?
There was already a problem in terms of the image we projected abroad. Developments in the region have carried us to a different track. With all the terror incidents as well, the confidence factor that Turkey projected outside eroded. There is a certain perception in Europe about Turkey and arrivals from the continent have seen a sharp decrease. We need to take some steps to reverse that trend. The mayor of Antalya has taken an initiative to promote Antalya in six European countries. These civil initiatives have to be undertaken by other cities, like Istanbul. Sometimes civil initiatives bring much better outcomes than the ones undertaken by the state. The return to coastal areas will be much faster but big cities like Istanbul will have a harder time getting tourists back since the profile of those tourists who go to big cities is very different from the ones coming to the coasts.
What are the lessons to be drawn from this crisis? Perhaps Turkey should not be so dependent on one market?
Diversification of markets is important. But we had already spent much effort previously to diversify the markets; we have hosted tourists from 80 different countries.
But the most fundamental lesson to be learned is to be in harmony with the world. It is the gist of our job. Our sector is one that goes hand-in-hand with peace. That’s why Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım’s statement that we will increase our friends and decrease our enemies will have a positive reflection on our sector. No matter how beautiful your country might be, if you don’t get along well with your neighborhood that means serious trouble for tourism.
When you look at countries with an advanced tourism sector, with the exception of one or two, most get the majority of their visitors from their neighbors. Our biggest potential is our neighbors as well. To the degree we are on good terms with them we will strive in tourism. Actually we are at the center of the world in terms of the tourism sector. We have great potential with countries that are only two to three hours of flight time to Turkey. We are neighboring a region of 1 million people with the highest income levels in the world. All we need is to be an island of stability. This was what we had projected before and it was our biggest asset.
Other than that we need to diversify what we offer. Turkey is preferred by those who want to rest. Yet we have many more things to offer, from gastronomy to archeology.