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Sat 7 Jun 2008 04:00 AM

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Turkish delights

Turkey's size offers huge diversity, but visitors must beware of biting off more than they can chew.

With Turkey's size comes huge diversity, but visitors must beware of biting off more than they can chew says Selina Denman.

Turkey has spent centuries welcoming - and wowing - foreign visitors. "If the earth was a single state, Istanbul would be its capital," Napoleon Bonaparte once said. For Anthony and Cleopatra, Turkey's southern coastline was the destination of choice.

Hundreds of years on and these destinations still appeal. Istanbul's continued popularity is not difficult to comprehend - a wealth of World Heritage Sites point to a colourful and controversial past, but it is also a modern and cosmopolitan commercial hub.

Turkey recognises that the Middle East is a market that holds a lot of potential.

"It is the only city in the world to bridge two continents," notes Frank Reichenbach, regional manager for Turkey at Mövenpick Hotels & Resorts. "It is an inspiring place to visit and in which to do business; a place alive with opportunity and endless activity and entertainment," he adds. Second time round

A mark of Istanbul's maturity is the number of international hotel chains currently planning a second or third property in the city.

Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts is kicking off this trend with the opening of its second - Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at the Bosphorus - this month.

Worldhotels will establish a third presence in the city with the April 2009 opening of Point Hotel Barbaros.

"Turkey's cultural and financial centre is a highly attractive destination for both leisure and business travellers and is therefore a great strategic location for a Worldhotels property," explains Ingo Gürges, senior director business development and relations at Worldhotels.

"In addition, it perfectly complements our portfolio in Istanbul as we already have two First Class Collection properties in the city - the Nippon Hotel and Point Hotel."

Another notable trend is the number of international chains bringing in their niche brands. Starwood unveiled the 134-unit W Istanbul last month, while Hyatt will launch its Park Hyatt Istanbul - Maçka Palas on September 1.

"As one of the most important tourism spots in Turkey and one of the world's major conference destinations, there is increasing demand for Istanbul from every market segment," says director of sales and marketing for the new property, Figen Çağlar.

"The US, UK and Europe are among the leading markets, followed by the Middle East and CIS countries." He cites similarities in culture and cuisine as a primary draws for Middle Eastern travellers.

The region also benefits from strong air links with Turkey.Turkish Airlines operates an extensive and rapidly-expanding Middle East network, says Ali Genc, spokesperson for the airline.

"We launched flights to Aleppo on May 15 and flights between Ankara and Tehran on May 25. We increased frequencies on flights to Amman, Damascus, Dubai, Bahrain and Doha with the start of the summer schedule," he says.

Private Iranian airline Mahan Air also boosted links between Turkey and Tehran recently with the launch of a five times weekly scheduled service to Istanbul. Further afield

With so much focus falling on a handful of established destinations, it's easy to forget that Turkey is an enormous country - the size of the UK and metropolitan France combined, in fact. And with this size comes mind-boggling diversity.

"Frankly, the place is brimming with unique selling points - from history and myths to legends to beaches, ruins and cosmopolitan cities. There is truly something for everyone," says John Flower, product manager for Alpha Holidays Dubai.

"For natural wonders, Cappadocia is a must, as well as Pamukkale. For history lovers, there is Ephesus, Pergumum, Troy, Side, Aspendos and Bodrum. In fact, two of the original seven wonders of the ancient world are in Turkey - the tomb of King Mausel in Halicarnassus, now Bodrum, and the Roman temple of Artemis at Ephesus near Izmir."

One of the greatest challenges in selling Turkey, Flower notes, is a lack of awareness of its true scale, which leads to unrealistic expectations of what can be achieved within specific timeframes.

"People never have enough time and they forget just how big a country it is; travellers want to do too much with too little time," he says.

And with Turkish authorities attempting to develop a range of new tourism destinations and products, this is set to become even more of a challenge. Izmir and Ankara, in particular, are keen to prove that tourism is not the preserve of a select few - and international hotel chains have taken note.

"Before, there wasn't an alternative to Istanbul [for visitors].It had a head start when it came to tourism," confirms Stuart Chase, general manager of the newly-opened Swissôtel Grand Efes, Izmir. "But now you have places such as Ankara and Izmir that are emerging."

Hotel openings in IstanbulW Istanbul: opened May 2008

Four Seasons Istanbul at the Bosphorous: taking reservations from June 15

Park Hyatt Istanbul - Maçka Palas: due September 2008

The Marmara Sisli Istanbul: due September 2008

Divan Istanbul Asia: due second half of 2008

Point Hotel Barbaros: due April 2009

Poseidon Underwater Hotel: due in 2010

Worldhotels, for one, is exploring opportunities in both of these new destinations, reveals Gürges. Meanwhile, Mövenpick Hotels & Resorts has signed for a 150-room property in Ankara, which is due to open in 2010 and made its debut in Izmir in February.

"Izmir, historically known as Smyrna, is the third most populous city in Turkey and boasts the country's largest port after Istanbul," Mövenpick's Reichenbach comments.

"We are proud to have a presence in Izmir with another upscale hotel, alongside those in Istanbul and Bodrum. "Izmir is an increasingly trendy destination and our hotel has a prime location."

Frankly, the place is brimming with unique selling points — from history and myths to legends to beaches, ruins and cosmopolitan cities.

Already present in Ankara with a 147-room luxury property, Swissôtel Hotels and Resorts soft opened its Swissôtel Grand Efes, Izmir at the beginning of May. Built in 1964 and formerly owned by the State Pension Scheme, the hotel was frequented by celebrities and dignitaries in its heyday and is already a local icon, explains Chase.

"It is located on a very large footprint in the middle of the CBD. It is almost unbelievable to have this type of property in the middle of a city," he says. While Izmir has traditionally been a weekend leisure capital for locals coming from Istanbul and Ankara, Chase is looking forward to cultivating international demand.

"It is a great city to try and develop as a mid-winter destination for western European and Scandinavian markets. Izmir had its heyday in the 60s and 70s. After that it waned a bit, but it is back on the up," he says.

With a high ratio of suites to rooms, the property is also well positioned to cater to Middle Eastern guests, notes Chase. "We were at ATM and received a good response from the people that we spoke to," he says.

"Turkey recognises that the Middle East is a market that holds a lot of potential. It is in its infancy but it is definitely a market that can be developed, and quickly."

The hotel's official opening is scheduled for October. By then, its Grand Efes Convention Centre and Amrita Spa & Wellness facility will be fully operational. Uniquely, the spa has already been granted with membership to The Leading Spas of the World, even though it is not yet operational. The healthy option

The launch of high-level wellness facilities is in keeping with wider plans to develop Turkey into a leading global destination for health tourism.

The country is home to more than 1000 natural thermal springs that are known for their healing properties. Those seeking more traditional remedies can look to high-standard hospitals and health centres.

"The quality has improved a lot and it is now time to lure foreign patients. At present, 18 hospitals in Turkey have Joint Commission International (JCI) accreditation and many others are trying to obtain it," says ŞSeref Bozbulut, foreign affairs coordinator for the Association of Improving Health Tourism in Turkey.

A range of health issues are being addressed by Turkey's expert physicians, with demand for dentistry, hair implants, IVF, plastic surgery and thermal treatments proving particularly high. While competitive prices are a crucial selling point, Turkey's accessibility also works in its favour.

"Turkey is close to the EU, the Middle East and Russia. It only takes nine to 10 hours from the US. And the country is already a tourism paradise that welcomes millions of tourists each year. Therefore, healthcare can be provided either separately or within a holiday package," Bozbulut elaborates.

All in all, prospects for Turkish tourism seem overwhelmingly positive. Its growing popularity as a tourism destination is evident in a 2007 visitor count of 23.3 million. Meanwhile, a booming property market, partially driven by foreign demand for holiday homes, presents further cause for optimism.

The Turkish Culture and Tourism Ministry has initiated a series of high-profile global marketing initiatives in the hope of sustaining this upswing. Turkey will be featured on billboards at famous stadiums across the world, as well as during the Olympic Games in Beijing. Taxis, buses and prominent buildings in major international cities will also showcase the country's varied tourism product.

For Flower, the only shame is that this proactive approach does not extend to the UAE where Turkey is not yet top of mind amongst the trade and promotional efforts do not do Turkey's diverse product any justice.

"I think there is always room for improvement for tourism boards in this region, but if you look at it logically, the market here in the UAE is quite small. Turkey's focus is bound to be on Europe, which has been benefitting from this wonderful destination for years," he says.

"I would like to see a far more active tourism board in Dubai. However, keep in mind that many tourism boards are having their budgets slashed in cost-cutting exercises by short-sighted governments that think it is more prudent to spend money on arts and defence than by investing in tourism, which actually brings people together in an atmosphere of tolerance and understanding."

As Chase points out: "It is a case of waking people up and saying ‘We're here!' Those that have been come time and time again; others just haven't thought about it."

Sample itinerary for Ankara and Cappadocia TourDay 1:Meet in Ankara. Visit the Hittite Museum and Mausoleum of Atatürk. Drive to Cappadocia for dinner and overnight stay.

Day 2:Morning visit to the underground city of Kaymaklı and Citadel of Uçhisar. After lunch continue to the valley of Göreme, followed by Çavuşin village, Paşabağ valley and Avanos. Dinner and overnight in Cappadocia. Day 3:Drive to Ürgüp and Ortahisar. Last stop is the 13th century Seljukian Caravanseria. Lunch on the way to Ankara. Transfer to the airport for late afternoon departure.

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