Turkey’s hoteliers upbeat over tourism sector recovery after quake
The government has raised hopes by keeping its promise to move survivors to guest houses and dormitories, industry player says
Istanbul/London — After months of hosting displaced survivors of Turkey’s huge earthquake in his Antalya hotels, Hakan Saatcioglu hopes his rooms will soon be filled with tourists again after the temporary guests were transferred elsewhere by the government.
Saatcioglu, the co-ordinator of Limak International Hotels & Resorts, is one of many in hospitality expecting to see Turkey’s economically vital tourism sector recover from a quake that dragged down bookings and hotel stays.
“The government has kept its promise” and raised hoteliers’ hopes, Saarcioglu said, by moving quake survivors to guest houses and dormitories, easing fears that hotel rooms would be blocked to tourists as the peak summer season approaches.
But tourism has been slow to rebound after the tremors that devastated swathes of Turkey’s southeast on February 6, killing more than 50,000 people, flattening towns and cities and leaving hundreds of thousands homeless.
The quake has caused tourists to think twice before booking a trip to Turkey, a major Mediterranean holiday destination.
Tourism revenue is critical to Turkey as President Tayyip Erdogan focuses on reducing the current account deficit — $48.8bn last year — to tackle high inflation and interest rates.
But the recovery has been halting. Stays of two nights or more in Istanbul were down 7% compared with 2019 two weeks before the earthquake, but are now down 31%, according to figures compiled by travel data firm ForwardKeys.
A drop in new bookings means less revenue for travel professionals and the economy at large, said Olivier Ponti, ForwardKeys’ vice-president for insights.
“After months of excellent performance, when the country was leading the travel recovery in Europe (after the Covid-19 pandemic), international tourism to Turkey is clearly taking a nosedive,” he said.
Before the quake, officials had hoped for a strong year due to a surge of tourists last year as the pandemic abated. Foreign visitors arriving in Turkey jumped 80% year on year to 44.56-million in 2022, though that was still just short of the record 45.06-million people in 2019.
Despite strong bookings recently across the travel sector in Europe as a whole, Turkey has been unable to regain momentum.
“The year started strong in terms of bookings, but it became sluggish after the quake. Now bookings have recovered a bit but have not reached their previous pace,” said Kadir Ugur, chair of Germany and Switzerland-based tour operator Bentour Reisen, which specialises in travel to Turkey.
“People are gripped by fear when you say another big disaster is waiting to happen in Istanbul.”
The stakes are high for Turkey as tourism contributes about 10% to its GDP, and about 1.7-million people worked in accommodation and food services in 2022 — about 5% of total employment.
Elections slated for May 14 are also keeping tourists away out of fear of potential disruptions around the historic vote in which Erdogan faces the biggest political challenge of his two-decade rule.
Kasim Zoto, chair of the Armada Hotel in Istanbul, said he is “on edge” before the elections as the hotel had offered free cancellations up to within 48 hours of check-in and expect that could be used.
Such cancellations would push back a potential recovery further even though hoteliers are anxious to fill their rooms.
“Bookings recovered in April but the bookings for May — especially for the first two weeks of May — are low due to upcoming elections,” said Ali Kirli, head of the tourism commission of Marmaris, a popular Aegean seaside destination.
A potential return to expected pre-earthquake travel figures is likely after elections wrap up, tourism officials said, especially as peak summer travel demand to Turkey ramps up.
Since the epicentre of the quake was in the southeastern inland city of Kahramanmaras, no coastal resorts were affected, a factor that raised hopes for recovery, driven by a surge in Russian tourists.
According to data from the Antalya governorate, foreign arrivals to the popular Mediterranean resort area increased 54% in March year on year, hitting a record high. Russians ranked first, followed by Germans and Britons, the data shows.
Turkey is one of the few countries that Russians can still fly to after tough Western sanctions were imposed on Russia over its full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year.
Due to these auspicious March figures, the Turkish government expects to generate $56bn in tourism revenues this year. The tourism minister said Ankara remains committed to achieving that pre-earthquake goal despite the fallout.
And hopes remain high that travel-hungry Britons, keen to take advantage of lower prices abroad, will still flock to Turkey in droves this summer.
“The depreciation of the Turkish lira and inflation in our European markets, especially in Britain, make Turkey attractive for Europeans,” Kirli said.
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