Turkey’s political unrest may only slight 2013 numbers if it ends quickly, but longer disruptions would tarnish its cool Mediterranean image among tourists still wary of similar uprisings following the Arab Spring.
Turkey, a largely Muslim nation that bridges Europe and Asia, has a flourishing tourist industry based on ancient historical sites and ruins, a world-ranked metropolis in Istanbul, wide sandy Mediterranean beaches and stunning regions of natural beauty.
A look at the industry as Turkey is hit by its largest anti-government demonstrations in years:
Turkey attracted more than 37.7 million visitors in 2012, according to the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, which says the country is among the top 10 most popular tourist destinations in the world. Over 5.2 million visitors have arrived already this year, a nearly 14 percent increase over the same period in 2012, it says.
Some 378,000 U.S. residents visited Turkey in 2011, the latest year in which figures are available, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.
While protesters and riot police have clashed for days in Istanbul, Ankara and other cities over the past week, the museums, monuments and ancient treasures that tourists flock to have largely stayed open.
Basaran Ulusoy, the head of Turkey’s tourism agencies’ association, TURSAB, acknowledged there had been some cancellations and postponements since the protests began last week but did not give a figure. “We are trying to turn the cancellations into postponements,” Ulusoy told Turkey’s business TV station CNBC-e.
— Associated Press writer Beth Harpaz in New York and AP writer Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey
Istanbul, Jewel of the Bosporus
This sprawling city on the Bosporus Strait is so laden with world-famous tourist attractions it’s hard to know where to begin: the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, the famed bath houses.
Yet Istanbul’s main tourist attractions are a fair distance — at least 30 minutes — from Taksim Square and Besiktas, where most of the violence has broken out, and tourists were still lining up for entrance tickets.
“We heard about the protests but we didn’t see that as a threat,” said John Bradberry, a U.S. investor waiting to see the Hagia Sophia, the church that became a mosque and is now a museum. “We didn’t change any of our plans and arrived here and we are just astonished of how beautiful and peaceful and wonderful it was.”
At nearby Sultanahmet, Istanbul’s old city, Gianluca Cassandro, a 25-year-old radiology technician from Italy, said he had heard about the protests a day before he left Venice but decided to enjoy his vacation here anyway.
Some tourists ventured into Taksim Square in the morning, when the situation was quiet and protesters were mainly sleeping off the previous night’s tear gas. One woman from Egypt said she came to Turkey on vacation every year but this year she went specifically to Taksim to encourage the protesters.
Still, the crowds in the city were far smaller than usual at this time of year, and some events, like the Istanbul International Arts and Culture Festival, were postponed.
—AP writer Elena Becatoros in Istanbul
On the streets, swept along
Krupali Tejura, a radiation oncologist from Newport Beach, California, was on vacation in Istanbul last week when the protests began. On Friday, she wandered over to Taksim Square without understanding what was going on.
“The Internet and Twitter were down and my hotel only had Turkish TV,” she said in a phone interview Tuesday. Once she got to the area, the tear gas and pepper spray were so strong that “you couldn’t even breathe. A stranger gave me a mask to help me out.” Others sprayed her face with vinegar to neutralize the airborne irritants.
Tejura began to take photos and videos with her iPhone, and strangers offered her access to their home Wi-Fi passwords as she passed by.
“The generosity of strangers came out,” she said.
— AP writer Beth Harpaz in New York
Heading over, eager to go
Victoria Benitez, a New Yorker who works in public relations, is scheduled to leave Thursday for her first visit to Turkey.
“I really am not freaking out,” she said by phone Tuesday.
She’s also been monitoring news reports and says she doesn’t get the sense that the protesters are anti-Western or extremists.
“They remind me of the Occupy Wall Street protesters,” she said. “I don’t see these people as dangerous.”
— AP writer Beth Harpaz in New York
Turkey’s southern beaches
German, British and Russian tourists descend by the planeload upon southern Turkey to revel in its modern Mediterranean beach resorts, its classical Greek and Roman monuments and the nearby lunar volcanic landscapes of Cappadocia.
Turkish Airlines has embarked on a big international push, hiring sports stars like Kobe Bryant and Lionel Messi to lure tourists with clever ads.
The Hurriyet newspaper quoted Osman Ayik, head of the Turkish Hoteliers Federation, as saying the situation in Antalya on Turkey’s southern Mediterranean coast is “calm.”
“Tourists haven’t been disturbed by the action of our citizens. However, if the incidents grow and unwanted developments occur, then we might see cancelations on our coastal resorts too,” he said.
— AP writer Suzan Fraser in Ankara
The Turkish economic powerhouse
Turkey’s economy is worth $1.3 trillion annually, almost as much as Canada’s or Spain’s, and is growing. It expanded by 2.2 percent in 2012 and should do better this year, even though several key trading partners in Europe are in recession.
Although Turkey is considered an ’emerging market’, its economy is relatively well developed — the services sector accounts for around 60 percent of annual output and agriculture for only about 10 percent.
A public service trade union called a general strike Tuesday and Wednesday in support of the protests. Thousands of union members marched to Istanbul’s Taksim Square on Tuesday but there was no evidence of any major disruption to services.
— AP Business writer Carlo Piovano in London
Azamara Journey, a Royal Caribbean cruise ship, ended and started a cruise on Monday in Istanbul, and “did not encounter any issues due to the protests,” according to spokeswoman Cynthia Martinez.
Norwegian Cruise Line has a ship making a stop in Istanbul next week and has not changed its itinerary but said it was monitoring the situation.
—AP writer Beth Harpaz in New York
Protests and Turkey’s 2020 Olympic bid
Istanbul is bidding for the 2020 Olympics, competing against Madrid and Tokyo. It’s the Turkish city’s fifth bid, with leaders trumpeting the country’s strong economy, secular democracy and geographical location linking Asia and Europe. The bid will be decided in a Sept. 7 vote in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
IOC officials had a mixed reaction to the Turkish protests.
“(The protests are) not going to have any influence on the decision of the IOC members,” IOC vice president Thomas Bach of Germany said. “All of them are experienced enough to realize that you are talking about a bid for the Olympic Games in seven years.”
Swiss member Denis Oswald also downplayed the impact.
“We are still three months away from the decision,” Oswald said. “For the time being, I don’t think it’s a real threat for the candidature.”
But IOC member Dick Pound of Canada said the fact the demonstrations are taking place in a predominantly Muslim nation could be an issue.
“It’s probably fair to say that people would be generally more nervous about unrest in an Islamic country than in others,” Pound told the AP. “That’s the elephant in the room for Istanbul: Is the country willing and able to remain secular? If it’s not, then it’s potentially quite a different (situation).”
The Istanbul bid committee itself issued a statement saying “despite these recent events, all sections of Turkey remain united in our dream to host our nation’s first-ever Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2020.”
— AP Sports Writer Stephen Wilson in London
FIFA: No worries for Turkey’s U-20 World Cup
FIFA says the anti-government protests in Turkey aren’t expected to disrupt the Under-20 World Cup tournament, which begins there on June 21. The Istanbul home of Turkish champion Galatasaray is scheduled to host 11 matches, including two group games for the United States. FIFA says it has “full confidence” in the Turkish authorities and their security plan for the 24-nation event.
“The riots deal with a domestic issue based in two contained areas in Istanbul. It is not foreseen that the tournament locations are affected,” the world soccer body said in a statement.
— AP Sports Writer Graham Dunbar in London
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Photo credit: Tourists take photographs in front of the Blue Mosque in Sultanahmet tourist area of Istanbul, late Tuesday, June 4, 2013. Thanassis Stavrakis / AP Photo