The boat sets sail from the Kabataş port for a Bosporus tour. There are more than 200 Arab tourists on board. Haşim Süngü, the tour guide, offers detailed information about the Bosporus and the historical structures surrounding it.
He starts by telling them about the Valide Sultan Mosque and continues with Dolmabahçe Palace. I hear the tour guide utter the words “Reis-ul Wuzara Tayyip Erdoğan” in Arabic. Before the guide completes his sentence, everyone starts to applaud.
As I struggle to understand what is going on, the owner of Karnak Travel, Serdar Aliabet, intervenes and explains: “The guide has said Erdoğan has an office in Dolmabahçe Palace. The applause was for our prime minister.” As the boat sails in front of the Abud Efendi seaside residence, all the Arabs head for the left side of the boat with their cameras to capture shots of the mansion.
The Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government’s efforts to boost ties with Muslim countries and Erdoğan’s “one minute” showdown in Davos made Turkey a shining star in the eyes of these countries. Both the interest of Arabs in Turkish TV series and political developments in Davos were priceless opportunities attracting Arab tourists to Turkey. For the last five years, the number of tourists from Middle Eastern and Gulf countries visiting Turkey has steadily increased. For example, while the number of tourists from Kuwait was 6,000 in the first six months of 2008, this figure rose to 9,000 in the same period of 2009, an increase of over 45 percent. Around 27,000 tourists from Morocco visited Turkey in the first half of this year, a 50 percent increase when compared with last year. The number of Saudi Arabian tourists was 15,500, a 31.29 percent increase over last year. This increase is also thanks to the promotion and advertising initiatives of the state and tourism agencies. Cumhur Güven Taşbaşı, head of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism’s promotion department, said the ministry held workshops along with the Turkish Hoteliers’ Association (TUROB) in Aleppo, Damascus, Beirut, Amman, Dubai, Tehran and Bahrain. “As a result of these workshops, we have seen an increase in demand of around 30 percent for our country from Arab countries,” he said.
Around 1 million Arabs visit Turkey a year
Aliabet notes that around 1 million Arab tourists visit Turkey each year. He says this figure has doubled over the last five years. “One million is, however, a pretty low figure for the Arab world, whose population has reached 350 million. Turkey attracts the most tourists from Germany with 5 million. Germans are followed by Russians with 3 million. Aliabet, whose father comes from Syria, underlines that the number of tourists visiting Turkey from Middle Eastern and Gulf counties increased by 35 percent despite the ongoing global financial crisis and the risk of swine flu. Representatives from tourism agencies in Antalya held a workshop for Middle Eastern journalists. “Contacts were strengthened during this five-day workshop and our country was promoted,” Aliabet said. He also mentioned that he rented the Abud Efendi seaside residence, where the famous Turkish series “Gümüş” (Silver) was shot, last year. Around 11,000 Arab tourists visited the residence, paying $50,000 each.
Ayman Maslamani, the owner of Heysem Travel, also said the attitude of the Turkish public about the Gaza incidents and Prime Minister Erdoğan’s Davos walkout has had an influence on Arab tourists choosing Turkey as a holiday destination. In his view, the alienation of Arabs in European countries following the Sept. 11 attacks and Turkey’s easing of visa requirements are also important factors. According to Maslamani, there was a 50 percent rise in the number of Arab tourists last year, but such an increase could not be achieved this year. He indicates that the threat of swine flu and Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever (CCHF) in Turkey may have had an impact, but another reason, according to Maslamani, is because the Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins in August.
Other tour operators say entrepreneurs should try to attract Arab visitors to Turkey during the month of Ramadan. To cater to Arab tourists who are interested in Turkish TV series, Maslamani said they were organizing tours to the locations where the soap operas are filmed.
Majority of Arab tourists come from Syria
The largest number of Arab tourists who visited Turkey in the first six months of the year — 179,717 — came from Syria. Syrians are followed by Iraqis with 114,730 tourists, then Algerians with 36,903, then Jordanians, Egyptians, Tunisians, Moroccans and Libyans. The average vacation duration for Arab tourists is generally more than a week. Most of them come with their families, and they have a conservative family structure. Many stay at five-star hotels and allocate a large budget to holiday spending. An Arab tourist spends an average of $3,000 a week; this figure is around $600 for Europeans.
Most choose to spend their holiday in İstanbul although Bursa, Yalova, Abant and Sapanca also attract interest from Arab tourists. There is some growing interest in the valleys of the Black Sea region, but for a seaside holiday, Antalya and Marmaris are the preferred destinations.
Arab tourists who come to Turkey on packages pay between $1,000 and $1,500 for a week’s accommodation and the services of a guide. During a one-week tour, they will visit the Blue Mosque and its surroundings in İstanbul, take in Topkapı Palace, tour around the Bosporus and visit the islands in the Marmara Sea and the thermal springs in Yalova.
The only complaint seems to be that some hotels won’t accept them because they are veiled.
Arabic used on menus
The ongoing financial crisis has lowered tourism revenues around the world. Turkey’s revenue from tourism declined by 9.6 percent when compared with the figures for last year, falling to $4.2 billion. Shopping centers and hotels were badly affected. In order to alleviate the effects of the economic crisis, hotels and shopping centers began to show more interest in tourists coming from Middle Eastern countries.
The İstanbul provincial director of the Hilton İstanbul, Conrad and Hilton ParkSA, Armin Zerunyan, said there has been a 40 percent fall in the number of people coming to İstanbul for business. “We are trying to make up for this loss with the Middle East market. The interest of Arab tourists in Turkey has grown due to Erdoğan’s Davos walkout and the popularity of Turkish soap operas. We include Arabic on our menus and have Arabic stations at our hotels,” he explained.
Arab tourists flock into shopping malls
It is well known that Arabs love shopping and shopping malls compete with each other for a share of this market. Cevahir, İstinye Park and Olivium shopping malls try to attract Arab tourists in partnerships with travel agencies. Cevahir shopping mall has a tax-refund office, which is only usually offered at airports, enabling foreigners to get back the taxes they’ve paid while shopping. In the first week of July, Cevahir received nearly 20,000 tourists, 82 percent of whom were Arabs.
Around 55,000 tourists have shopped at the Olivium Outlet shopping mall since the beginning of 2009, and 80 percent of the foreign visitors are from the Middle East. The amount each tourist spent ranged from $20 to $20,000.
‘It was a very nice move’
Arabs are happy with the interest Turkish people show in them. Omar Sneij and Layla Mardash are a Syrian couple who came to İstanbul with their daughter Sara. They say it is the first time they have come to Turkey. They mentioned that Turkish TV series broadcast in Syria had influenced their choice of İstanbul, which they did not expect to be so beautiful. As for Erdoğan’s Davos move they said, “It was a source of pleasure for us that Erdoğan showed such a reaction although he is not an Arab.”
It is the second time another couple, Mohan Ridah and Lama Tarabein, has come to Turkey. They say they loved Sultanahmet, the Grand Bazaar and the Bosporus, and they think prices are very reasonable in Turkey. Tarabein says she has never missed a single episode of the Turkish TV series “Menekşe ile Halil” and “Gümüş.”