Turkey's tourism sector battling the fallout from the war in Ukraine

10 May

Last year, most foreign tourists in Turkey came from Russia, Germany and Ukraine. Two of the countries are at war. Visitor numbers are down — meaning tough times ahead for Turkey's tourist industry.


War and tourism don't really mix. When there is war, the desire to travel usually decreases, especially, of course, in those countries engaged in the war. Turkey is not involved in the war between Russia and Ukraine — but will feel the impact in the tourism sector very clearly. There are already clear indications of this now, well before the summer season gets underway.

Turkey is one of the most popular vacation destinations in the world. Most international tourists come from Russia. Last year, there were around 4.7 million. German holidaymakers make up the second-largest group, followed by Ukrainians.

Drop in demand and bookings

This year, Turkey's tourist industry is worried about the future."The hotel sector is hardest hit by the war," says Firat Solakm, who runs a travel agency in Antalya, a popular Mediterranean resort town. "We should already be booked out for July and August, but there has been hardly any Russian demand, there are no bookings," he tells DW. Western sanctions levied on Russia largely explain this drop.

Many Russian airlines lease their aircraft from western companies. With western sanctions in place, if one of them were to land abroad, it could be seized. "Flights are the biggest challenge," says Murat Yalcin Yalcinkaya, who heads the Antalya tour guide association. "Guests used to reach Antalya by charter flight, but that's no longer possible; we are trying to work out a solution. In the past, we received 5,000 to 9,000 guests per day — this May, we're expecting about 500."

Flights suspended

The challenge therefore is to figure out how to get Russian tourists into the country. In the past, they simply flew to Turkey with Russian airlines and then back to Russia after their vacation. Now everything is to be done the other way around, explains Deniz Ugur, managing director of the tour operator Bentour, which specializes in Turkish destinations. Turkey's government is working to get Turkish aircraft to transport foreign guests. The move is designed to prop up the vital tourist industry, key pillar of the economy.

The question, however, remains whether such a step would be counterproductive with regard to western sanctions, or even strengthen Russia? Deniz Ugur doubts this. On the contrary. "In the past, Russia was making revenue, now Turkey is; this model strengthens Turkey and weakens Russia." He says Turkey is merely bringing in guests with purchasing power, and the real revenue is generated in Turkey itself.

Payment problems?

Aside from these logistical problems, there is the issue of Russian credit cards no longer working abroad. Credit card issuers Mastercard and Visa have suspended their Russian operations. Yet Sberbank, Russia's biggest bank, recently announced cards compatible with the Mir payment systemestablished by the Central Bank of Russia, would continue working in Turkey and several other countries.

"Russian tourists in Turkey are paying in cash, or with Mir-compatible cards — Mastercard, Visa and others don't work anymore," says Samed Kizgin, a Turkey expert and travel security analyst with A3M Global Monitoring, a company that advises travel agencies and global enterprises. "Hoteliers and restaurateurs have adapted their services to this," he adds.

Fewer Russians and Ukrainians expected

Despite Turkey's best efforts, almost 50% fewer Russian tourists visited the country in March than in the same period last year, says Samed Kizgin. Bentour's Deniz Ugur, who has many contacts in Turkey, says the tourist industry presently expects some 1.5 to 1.7 million Russian guests — roughly one third of the 4.7 million who streamed into Turkey in 2021. Expectations are grimmer still with regard to Ukrainian tourists. While some 2 million visited in 2021, a mere 100,000 are expected this year. Men between the ages of 18 and 60 are currently not allowed to leave Ukraine — only women, children and elderly people are therefore able to visit Turkey.

Will other tourists make up for the shortfall?

Turkey hopes visitors from other countries, such as Germany, will offset this shortfall in Russian and Ukrainian tourists. "We are seeing a marked rise in bookings by Germans this summer," says Torsten Schäfer, a spokesperson for Germany's travel association. The eastern Mediterranean region, chiefly Turkey and Greece, are growing increasingly popular with German holidaymakers, according Schäfer. More so, he says, than countries like Spain, which nevertheless remains Germany's favorite holiday destination. Cumhur Sefer managing director of COOP TRR Int. AG, a network of Turkish travel agencies, however, doubts other visitors can make up for the shortfall in Russian and Ukrainian tourists. "German holidaymakers won't fill this gap, to make up for it, their numbers would have to double," he says.

Ugur of Bentour travel agency projects some 40% more German holidaymakers in Turkey this year, along with 50% more British and some 60% more Polish guests compared with 2021. And what about other countries? Travel safety expert Samed Kizgin says in March this year, 13% of all tourists arriving in Turkey hailed from Iran — making them the biggest group of visitors that month.

Yet despite these promising signs, none of the experts believe Turkey will cope with the dramatic decline in Russian and Ukrainian holidaymakers this year.


Author Marco Müller

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