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Sun 1 Jul 2007 12:00 AM

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Turkish delight

With Istanbul a short flight from the GCC, agents are confident the destination will become increasingly popular.

Statistics show that despite the overall increase in visitor numbers to Turkey, tourists from the Middle East make up only a small percentage of that figure.

However, with Istanbul a comfortable four-and-a-half hour flight from the GCC, agents are confident the destination will become increasingly popular.

Arrivals to Istanbul have increased by 20% since it declared itself a cultural city in 2000, but after a record breaking year in 2005, when 21 million international visitors arrived in Turkey, 2006 saw a 6.9% decline.

Things are back on track for 2007, according to Ozgur Ozaslan, director general, Republic of Turkey Ministry of Culture and Tourism, but he says unfortunately, less than 5% of arrivals hail from Middle East.

"It's a huge market and we would like to improve some of the facilities to draw more citizens from Arabic countries to Turkey," he explains.

"For this purpose, some investments have been made by Arabic investors and [the tourism board] will carry out some promotional campaigns in these countries. Figures from the first two months [of 2007] show the visitor growth rate of GCC countries will be more than 20%."

Dubai-based Sharaftravel recently announced a summer package offering a week in Istanbul focusing on the beauty and history of the city as its key selling points.

One of the company's sales executives, Rashmi Shenoy, claims Istanbul is the perfect destination for the new breed client that has emerged.

"Today's customer is well read, knows what he wants, has set a budget and he wants the most economical rate - Istanbul fits the bill," she explains.

"It boasts a rich history and culture, is a shoppers' paradise and then of course there are the traditional Turkish baths, which can make it a truly relaxing holiday."

She continues: "Istanbul is a city of wonders far exceeding what words can tell; that's why it attracts a lot of holidaymakers who want to look at the spectacular city divided into two continents by the Bosphorus. I wouldn't say that one particular type of person travelled to Istanbul; it is a popular choice with many different people."

City of culture

Marco Heinrich, regional manager, destination development, Europe and Americas for Emirates Holidays agrees that Istanbul is the jewel in the crown of the country.

"Turkey is one of the most popular destinations in our product range and 90% of our Turkey business is from people going to Istanbul," he says.

"People feel very comfortable because of the [country's] cultural and religious background and because it's easy to get in and out of, so they don't have too many formalities to go through. It's a short travel time; it's not half way around the world - you get there easily."

Heinrich continues: "Then there's the city itself, which is very diverse; you have the old world and you have the new world. You have traditional souks and modern shopping malls at the same time. There's traditional food and modern restaurants.

"If you went to Istanbul you would have gorgeous views of the Bosphorus, crossing over to the Asian side and the blue mosque in the distance. So it's a beautiful city in terms of the setting as well."

And it's not just GCC residents that will find the mix of cultures appealing; different travelers want different things and Istanbul has it all, according to Heinrich.

"I think GCC residents like the shopping aspect of the city while Western ex-pats travel to Istanbul for the culture and of course, there are lots of things to look at.

"You have the mosques and the Grand Bazaar, which is basically a city itself; it is fully covered, very attractive and also a bit mysterious," he says.

"Everyone is going there because Istanbul has something for everyone. It's a really perfect destination for someone who wants culture, for someone who wants shopping, for somebody who just wants to sit in a nice hotel lobby and have a coffee; because there are those people who go to enjoy the nice services of hotels."

City of comfort

Starwood Hotels and resorts Worldwide, Inc. returned to Istanbul with its Sheraton brand in June following a 14-year absence in the city.

The Sheraton Istanbul Maslak has reopened after a year of restoration work, offering 305 rooms and facilities for both business and leisure travellers, including meetings rooms, a gym and Link @ Sheraton; an internet facility for guests. Sheraton is currently in the early stages of planning for more hotels in the city.

General manager of the newly opened property, Omer Subasi, says that in the hotel brand's absence, "Istanbul became more important; a modern centre for finance and business ".

"Istanbul is a place that attracts everyone and with recent economical developments, a ripe business environment and many foreign firms, it's normal that Sheraton, being one of the leaders of the tourism industry, should be there," he adds.

Subasi says Sheraton traditionally attracted the GCC market for one-month of the year - the summer.

"In future we are planning to increase our GCC market to a year around market," he explains.

"In the summer months we are trying to attract leisure guests, but we are also targeting the business market year-round. The combination of Istanbul and Sheraton is going down very well in the GCC."

The hotel's location will also help attract business travellers from the GCC, according to Subasi.

"The Maslak area is the heart of the business world in Istanbul and the Maslak Hotel is the only hotel in the area," he explains.

Movenpick Hotels & Resorts has been present in Istanbul since February 2003, with its Movenpick Hotel Istanbul, located in the main business and commercial centre Levant 4 - described as a "boutique business hotel, boasting 249 rooms equipped with extra large desks, internet access and safes to cater for business travellers", a formula, which according to general manager, Frank Reichenbach, is paying dividends.

"We have more than doubled revenues and profits year-to-date since the opening and occupancy rates have moved from the 60s to the high 80s; we've also doubled our average rate since opening, and our percentage of potential customers from the Middle East has increased in line with those figures," he says.

The 102-room Movenpick Suites & Spa Istanbul, due for completion in mid-2008, will be located in the residential and business district of Etiler and "will ideally compliment our existing hotel in Istanbul and generate additional synergies," says Reichenbach.

"The Etiler and Levant districts are only a stone's throw apart, making the offer even more attractive for our guests."

The sales pitch

Getting there:

Air Arabia:from Sharjah, two weekly.

Emirates:from Dubai, daily.

Gulf Air:from Bahrain, two weekly.

MEA:from Beirut, four weekly.

QatarAirways:from Doha, three weekly.

Royal Jordanian:from Amman, weekly.

Saudi Arabian Airlines:from Jeddah, three weekly; from Riyadh, one weekly.

Turkish Airlines:from Amman, five weekly; from Bahrain, three weekly; from Beirut, six weekly; from Cairo, daily; from Damascus, five weekly; from Doha, two weekly; from Dubai, daily; from Kuwait, five weekly; from Muscat, two weekly; from Riyadh, two weekly; from Tehran, daily.

Visas:

GCC nationals and European Union citizens can obtain a visa on arrival. Most other nationalities need a visa, which can be obtained from the Turkish embassy in their respective countries. Visit www.tourismturkey.org.

Currency:

10 Turkey New Lira (TRY) = US $7.62.

Packages:

Sheraton Istanbul Maslak:offers the following packages: a romance package for EUR 189 (US $254), including breakfast for two, a bottle of champagne, a fruit plate on arrival and a 4pm checkout; a breakfast package for EUR 160 ($215), including breakfast for two and a 4pm checkout; a family package for EUR 180 ($242), offering free kids meals when purchasing an adult meal, a welcome snack for children, one in-room movie per night and a complimentary rollaway; a spa package for EUR 175 ($235), including two bottles of water per day, a welcome fruit plate and 20% off standard massage; and a local attraction package for EUR 230 ($309), including breakfast for two, two tickets for a half-day city tour and a 4pm checkout.

Sharaftravel:prices for seven nights in Istanbul start from AED 1850 (US $504) per person, including return flights from Dubai to Istanbul, three-star accommodation (twin share), breakfast, airport transfers, a city tour, a Bosporus tour and a Princes' Island Tour. Valid until September 30.

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