What may have passed off as tourism promotion has now snowballed into a geopolitical issue as Greece raises objection to Turkey tourism's recent "TurkAegean" campaign. With both countries going to the polls in 2023, the issue might prove to be a big draw for both the ruling parties.
Greece and Turkey are sparring again and this time around it is Turkey tourism’s recently-released “TurkAegean” campaign that has riled its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ally.
Under normal circumstances, what may have been a regular promotional campaign, is now being interpreted by Greece as a Turkish narrative to legitimatize its decades-old claims over the Aegean Sea.
Athens was especially critical of the European Union intellectual property office’s approval to Turkey’s request to trademark the term TurkAegean. “Some people … quite simply, did not do their job well,” Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said.
While anyone with a legitimate interest may apply for a trademark at the European Union’s intellectual property office, the issue has been complicated by unauthorised claims made by Turkey against the Greek islands, said Andreas Papatheodorou, professor at the University of the Aegean, Greece.
While acknowledging that the eastern coast of the Aegean Sea belongs to Turkey, Papatheodorou said that the issue wouldn’t have been escalated had Ankara stuck to the tourism angle. “This intermingling of tourism with geopolitics has complicated the situation,” he said.
And then of course, the issue also gains prominence in the context of the impending elections in both the countries in 2023. While both governments have ruled out rumors of snap elections, the Aegean issue would definitely help to raise the popularity scores of the ruling parties.
Ahead of the elections, the leaderships in both the countries may hope to reap electoral benefits from some brinkmanship, said Berkay Mandiraci, a senior analyst for Turkey at International Crisis Group. “This, however, can also be dangerous with more military activity in the seas and skies.”
What Lies Beneath the Turkey-Greece Aegean Dispute
The dispute between Turkey and Greece dates back almost five decades and is rooted in competing sovereignty claims over maritime zones, airspace as well as islands and islets in the Aegean Sea.
Tensions in the Aegean Sea have also threatened war between the NATO allies.
“The discovery of hydrocarbon resources off the coast of Cyprus, as well as Turkey’s maritme deal with Libya in late 2019 added additional layers of complexity to the dispute,” explained Mandiraci.
The issue flared up in the summer of 2020 and then again in 2022 after fitful talks broke down.
“The U.S., once an actively engaged peacekeeper in the region, is no longer so invested,” noted a report published by the International Crisis Group.
The Intermingling of Tourism With Geopolitics
Industry stakeholders are however not impressed with this intermingling of tourism with geopolitics. More so, when tourism so far has served to promote friendship between the two countries.
“It is a real pity that tourism with its philosophy and purpose of connecting people, cultures and celebrating unique experiences, is now being dragged into this clash,” said Dimitris Palaiogiannis, founder of Zorbabook.
The geopolitical tension has now affected the tourism scenario, rued Palaiogiannis, who is also a board advisor at the World Tourism Association for Culture and Heritage.
The Aeagean region is a vital lifeline for the tourism industry of both the countries.
In Turkey, the economic slowdown has prompted officials to take steps to attract more tourists for the summer season which would also help draw in more foreign currency. “Greece and its islands pose direct competition to Turkey’s tourism prospects,” said Mandiraci.
The subsequent depreciation of the Turkish lira over the last few years, has rendered Turkey as a cheaper destination. Turkey clearly wants to capitalise on that and show that they offer the same sea and sun products as Greece, said Professor Papatheodorou.
“Aegean as a brand name is very strong and Turkey wants to capitalise on this,” he said.
While admitting that the term Aegean has a strong connection to tourism, Palaiogiannis said that the Aegean islands are global brand names. “When speaking about visiting the Aegean, a majority of travelers have in mind the whitewashed Greek islands and the unique Greek summer which has been a core product of our country for the more than 60 years.”
Travel companies have been using the term “Turkish Aegean” for a long time, said Ufuk Secgin, chief marketing officer of travel booking site HalalBooking.
“While selling particular itineraries such as the Marmaris, Bodrum, Kusadasi and Cesme regions we have often used the term Turkish Aegean, similar to the fact that we promote islands such as Rhodes or Santorini as the Greek Aegean,” Secgin said.
What’s more, the two countries are also each other’s source market for tourism. Greek islands in the North Aeagean region like Chios or Lesbos, rely a lot on Turkish outbound tourists, while Greeks travel to Turkey for historical or heritage tourism.
“Cruise products to combine Greek islands with destinations in Turkey — like Bodrum, Kusadasi and Antalya, would prove to be a great draw,” noted Papatheodorou.
It is essential that the disagreement between the two countries on Cyprus and the extension attempts are finally resolved, especially in the light of the recent Russia-Ukraine conflict, said Secgin.
“Both nations are NATO allies and have far more in common culturally and historically than many would expect,” he said.
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Photo credit: The Aeagean region is a vital lifeline for the tourism industry of both Turkey and Greece. Michelle_Raponi / pixabay