Arab visitors to Turkey, especially from Gulf nations, have steadily increased in recent years as have tensions between Turkey and some Gulf countries. So far it hasn't bled into the tourist scene, but there have been attempts to link the two.
Turkey has been a popular holiday destination for Middle Eastern residents for a long time. The number of Arab visitors has increased over the last fifteen years. There are political and social reasons behind the spike in visitors and Turkey is looking to maintain this edge despite numerous challenges over the past few years.
Turkish image and hotspot destinations
The Arab tourists’ journey to Turkey started almost two decades ago and coincided with the export Turkish TV series' to the Middle East. A piqued interest to learn Turkish and experience the country's culture gradually grew among young Arabs, which culminated in a desire to visit Istanbul and experience the location where these popular series were filmed.
At the same time, debates over the impact of Turkish 'soft power' in the region started appearing. Many experts state that those TV series introduced Turkey to the Middle East, and consequently boosted Turkey’s soft power over the region.
Another component of Turkish soft power in the region was growing political and economic ties with Arab countries, especially those in the Gulf. The 2000s were fruitful for the rapprochement between Turkey and the Gulf nations, both politically and economically, as the latter was accompanied by an increasing number of tourists coming from these countries to Turkey.
As the so-called Arab Spring raged, discussions about applying “the Turkish model” in the Arab countries emerged. During the uprisings, Turkey urged these countries to undertake reforms for more democratic and pluralistic societies. As the unrest spread across the region, people who used to spend their summer holidays in Syria, Egypt or Tunisia started looking for a safer alternative: Turkey.
The number of tourists coming from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries was 44,222 in 2002, in 2017, the number reached 1,089,614 according to Border Statistics of the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism.
Saudi Arabia led the list with 651,170 tourists to Turkey in 2017, but there has also been increase of Kuwaiti and Qatari tourists in the same period. In 2002, the number of Kuwaiti and Qatari tourists was 824 and 6,989 respectively, and in 2017 those numbers surged to 48,764 and 255,644.
Whereas Istanbul has always been a hotspot for Arab tourists, new destinations have started taking on as well. With their cool weather and scenic beauty, Trabzon, Ordu and Rize provinces of the Black Sea region have seen a greater influx of Arab tourists, especially from the Gulf.
In these provinces, locals have enjoyed a stimulated economy and new job opportunities to satisfy the increased tourism. Car rental companies and travel agencies are in demand, new hotels and gift shops have been built, and new restaurants launched, even offering menus with Arab cuisine. Street signs with Arabic script have started to pop up as well.
Moreover, since Turkey provides halal-friendly tourism activities such as restaurants without alcohol, easily accessible prayer halls, and segregated swimming pools and beaches, Arab visitors feel comfortable and at home in Turkey. Some have even purchased real estate in Trabzon.
Turkey, on the other hand, aware of the importance of the tourism sector has been implementing comprehensive reforms in the country. One of them is the Tourism Strategy of Turkey – 2023, published in 2007 as a part of the 2023 Vision. If this strategy is completed by 2023, tourism in Turkey will become more sustainable, environmentally-friendly, and participatory.
Challenges and responses
Despite these improvements, tourism in Turkey took a hit after the failed coup in July 2016, and a number of terror attacks followed. In 2017, regarding the security problem in Turkey, the UN World Tourism Organization’s previous Secretary-General Taleb Rifai highlighted during his visit in Istanbul, that Turkey has various must-see destinations, and visiting Turkey is the best response to terrorism.
In a similar vein, Turkey offered fuel subsidies for airlines and helped hotels obtain capacity, and hotels provided discounts for early bookings to lure tourists again in 2017.
In 2018, the numbers started to rise again despite political tensions between Turkey and some Arab countries (mainly Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia) in the last couple of years.
Interestingly after the Qatar Crisis the number of tourists from blockading countries—mainly from Saudi Arabia and the UAE—did not decrease but instead increased in the summer of 2018 despite Turkey's alliance with Qatar.
Ankara is looking to further increase tourism in the years to come. Recently, the Turkish Minister Culture and Tourism announced a new program for developing tourism in Turkey which promises “70 million tourists with $70 billion revenue” in 2023. The program aims to bring new works of art and shoot trailers on tourism in Turkey alongside a modern social media campaign.
Nevertheless, in 2018, anti-Turkey stories have spread, especially in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The Dubai-based MBC Group which is a private broadcaster with significant influence over the Arab world announced that they would no longer broadcast Turkish TV series. Also, one Saudi-based newspaper asserted that Turkey is not safe for travel. The same newspaper frequently blames Turkey for the Jamal Khashoggi murder. The Saudi government has confessed that Saudi officials were responsible for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.
As of 2019, the question is whether, despite these changes in attitude from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, can Turkey manage to continue to be an attractive destination for the Arab tourists?
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