By Staff writer
The combination of Turkey’s decision to grant GCC visitors visas on arrival, and the emergence of cheap flights from most Middle Eastern countries to Istanbul, have helped the country’s tourism industry get back on track
Since the Turkish government made the decision to grant GCC citizens visas on arrival on September 1, 2002, the country has witnessed an influx of holidaymakers from this region.
The four-hour flight makes it an ideal destination for short breaks or long weekends, and the cultural similarities between Turkey and the Arab world mean visitors can experience a taste of Europe, but in a familiar environment.
Terror attacks in Istanbul on August 27 did impact inbound tourism, but the long-term affect is likely to be minimal according to Rami Mashini, deputy general manager of Gullivers Travel Associates by Travelport (GTA).
“Terrorism always has a negative impact anywhere in the world, but I think the past few incidents have shown us that people will still travel,” he says.
“We had a few cancellations [after the Istanbul bombings], but it was nothing compared to the cancellations as a result of Beirut, or Sharm el Sheikh; it all depends on the amount of business you have [to that destination].”
Mashini says Turkey is often considered a low-cost destination due to its affordability, but numerous five-star hotels can be found in Istanbul, along the banks of the Bosphorous, and in the popular Tacsim and Golden Horn districts.
“This destination is popular more for short breaks and ideal for long weekends or Eid breaks, both for nationals and ex-pats,” adds Mashini.
Emirates Holidays has featured Turkey in its brochure since Emirates Airlines’ Dubai-Istanbul route was launched in 1987, and has witnessed the destination swing in and out of popularity.
“Turkey needs a bit of a push at the moment,” says Marco Heinrich, destination development manager, Europe and North America, Emirates Holidays.
“Things like bird flu and other incidents in the city have made business a little weak.
Turkey had seen growth of between 20 and 40% each year, but for the past seven months bookings slowed down. They are starting to rise now though.”
According to Heinrich, visitors from the Middle East would rather visit Istanbul than the beach resorts along Turkey’s coastline.
Beach enthusiasts from this region prefer Asia where the product is arguably more impressive he says.
“The Middle East client is very comfortable in Istanbul; he can see the best of both worlds,” he explains.
“It’s is a melting pot; you have Eastern, Oriental, and of course, Western influence in the city; modern hotels, but also very old souks and shopping areas.
[The customs and religion] makes them feel at home and comfortable, so it’s not something totally new; culturally, they don’t have to adjust so much.
It’s a good mix,” he adds.
Istanbul can be divided into three main areas, according to Heinrich.
The main tourist attractions are located in the Golden Horn area, which is popular with Western ex-pats, whereas Arabic visitors prefer to hang out in Tacsim, which is close to many of the shops and restaurants.
The third area of interest is the stretch of hotels that line the banks of the Bosphorous.
“Its advisable to have someone show customers around or they could miss a lot; there are so many things to see,” he adds.
Agents are also advised to organise private excursions to places of interest outside of Istanbul.
An hour’s drive from the city and set on the shores of the Marmara Sea, is the former Ottoman capital, Bursa.
The city, which is green and dotted with ancient ruins, was introduced to the Emirates Holidays brochure in 2005 and is now an essential component of many customer itineraries, according to Heinrich.
“Guests often spend three nights in Istanbul, and two or three more nights in Bursa, before returning to Istanbul,” he says.
And while bookings to Turkey in general have suffered in recent months, Bursa has seen 10% year-on year sales growth, he reveals.
Looking ahead, Emirates Holidays is considering introducing additional Turkish destinations such as Bodrum and Antalya, he adds.
Turkey’s national carrier, Turkish Airlines launched 24 new destinations between January and March this year, including Sanaa, Muscat, Doha and Abu Dhabi in the Middle East.
According to Lale Kaplan, the airline’s regional director UAE, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and Sri Lanka, the entrance of new carriers to the Turkish market such as Air Arabia has had no negative impact on Turkish Airlines’ load factors, but has simply soaked up excess demand.
Daily flights from Dubai leave in the early hours of the morning, arriving in Istanbul in time for the “first wave” of onward flights to domestic and other international destinations, and giving short-break leisure travellers the chance to have a long-weekend in Istanbul.
“Istanbul is a self explanatory destination,” says Kaplan.
“Everyone can find something; it’s a Muslim country on the one hand, but it’s European on the other.”
She says Turkish Airlines anticipates a large increase in leisure traffic volumes during the Eid break because GCC visitors can get visa on arrival and enjoy a full three days in Istanbul due to the convenient flying times it offers.
Traditionally the Arab market has opted for Istanbul, Yalova and Bursa, the latter two being quiet green destinations, she says, but trends are changing.
“Families have children who need entertaining, and women who want to go shopping, so they no longer want the quiet break holidays,” says Kaplan.
Istanbul remains popular, but the number of people transferring to resort destinations is growing, she adds.
Air Arabia launched a three times weekly service from Sharjah to Istanbul’s Sabiha Gökçen Airport on May 28 and “traffic is picking up”, according to Haluk Aksoy, the airline’s GSA manager for Turkey.
Labour traffic is the strongest source market for this route, but the leisure market is catching on too, he says.
“A lot of people are coming from the GCC countries, but the situation in Lebanon affected us badly,” he concedes.
However, Turkey’s close proximity to the Gulf States and its affordability, combined with Air Arabia’s low cost prices are proving a draw card for large groups and families.
“There was a time when the UAE nationals would mainly go to London or Paris for their holidays, but now that those places are becoming a bit expensive, they’re looking more to destinations like Turkey for reasonably price holidays,” says Zuyina Khan, corporate travel consultant, Air Arabia.
“It’s not only the middle class people travelling anymore. It’s very expensive for big families who want to go on holiday, but they can save a lot of money going with low-cost carriers like Air Arabia.”
Companies too can save big bucks annually by selecting value-for-money destinations such as Turkey for corporate trips and conferences, and flying their employees there with a low cost airline.
Air Arabia is one of more than 30 UAE companies that took part in the first UAE Trade Exhibition in Turkey last month.
Organised by Dubai Chamber of Commerce & Industry (DCCI), Jebel Ali Free Zone Authority (JAFZA) and Dubai Tourism and Commerce Marketing (DTCM), the event was a response to the increase in trade between the Emirates and Turkey in recent years.
The total value of exports to the UAE increased from US $315 million in 2000 to $1.6 billion in 2005, according to a recent report by Turkish government officials, making the UAE Turkey’s biggest export market in the GCC.
Trade volumes have steadily increased across the entire Gulf region with 2005 exports to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait reaching $783 million and $210 million respectively.
As a result, business travel between Turkey and the GCC is on an upward spiral.
Gulf Air’s Turkey office recorded a 190% increase in sales during July and the first half of August, compared to the same period last year.
“Gulf Air’s significant growth in this sector has been fuelled by our ability to serve the Turkish community business and leisure travellers and visiting friends and relatives in tune with the demand of the period,”says Gulf Air vice president sales and marketing Lee Shave.
The carrier upped its Bahrain-Istanbul service from four to six flights per week this summer.
Gulf Air Holidays primarily arranges packages to Istanbul, but can tailor-make trips to other destinations within Turkey, says Shehab Turk, manager product & planning, Gulf Air Holidays.
“People travelling from this part of the world are mainly looking for place to shop, nice restaurants and coffee shops.
Hiring cars is very rare, but chauffeurs are in demand, as are tour guides,” she says.
Turk says customers sometimes combine holidays in Turkey with trips to other nearby countries such as Greece.
Istanbul is home to many well-known hotel brands that offer home comforts to Middle East guests.
At the top-end The Ritz-Carlton, Istanbul claims its USPs as far as this market is concerned are Arabic TV channels and newspapers, family-size suites, and a Turkish bath.
According to Basar Eryoner, EAM, sales & marketing, the Middle East market accounts for 10% of business on average, although this jumps to 20% during the summer months when leisure travellers flock to Istanbul.
MICE and corporate business is the hotel’s bread-and-butter come winter, he says.
“It represents a big portion of our total business and we aim to grow it further,” he says.
“The product knowledge of our potential guest is constantly increasing.
The more they experience the brand the more they select it in their travels around the world.”
The Ritz-Carlton, Istanbul, which is centrally located and offers views of the Bosphorus, pays agents 10% commission and offers a room rate of EUR 109 ($138) for travel professionals conducting site visits.
Swissôtel Hotels & Resorts operates three properties in Turkey: Swissôtel The Bosphorus in Istanbul, Swissôtel Göcek Marina & Resort at the Mediterranean Sea and its newest hotel, the Swissôtel Ankara, which opened in April.
The Swissôtel Grand Efes will open in 2007, and the Swissôtel The Celik Palace is scheduled to open in Bursa in 2008.