When a city bids for a chance to host a major event, it's always about more than the event itself. Istanbul has leveraged the attention to grow as a destination and add thousands of hotels over the last two decades.
Tens of thousands of visitors are descending upon Istanbul ahead of the final game of the season for the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) Champions League on Saturday, where Manchester City will play against Inter Milan at the Istanbul Atatürk Olympic Stadium.
Skift’s first sight of them was on arrival at Sabiha Gökçen International Airport on Thursday: There were hundreds of people waiting to enter the country, more joining every few minutes from airplanes continually landing from abroad.
A couple of Italian men — wearing jerseys of their favorite football team — raised their fists and began singing an anthem in their language. A few notes in, a couple dozen Italian strangers were singing along.
The police quickly intervened: “Be quiet, please,” they yelled.
There were 46 commercial flights scheduled this week from Manchester to Istanbul alone, carrying more than 9,300 passengers, according to data from aviation analytics firm Cirium.
Turkish Airlines is the official sponsor of the UEFA Champions League for the season.
Istanbul has 3,000 registered hotels, and they are collectively approaching 95 percent percent capacity this weekend, according to Muberra Eresin, president of the Turkish Hotel Association and vice president of Eresin Hotels, which operates four hotels totaling 488 rooms in Istanbul.
Before it was known which teams would be competing this weekend, hotel capacity in Istanbul was at about 70 percent. Once it was known that the teams from Italy and England would play each other, more hotel bookings started rolling in right away, Eresin said. And that’s not counting the many short-term rentals available throughout the city.
Having such a high hotel capacity is not unusual for Istanbul during a big event, especially in the summer months. While the 75,000 football attendees surely will create some economic impact, Istanbul’s hosting of the one-day game is more important for the city than the event alone.
The true value to the tourism industry of hosting this major event — expected to attract hundreds of millions of live viewers worldwide in addition to those attending in person — is the advertising power.
“Apart from this economic benefit, it’s very important to note that hosting such a prestigious event highlights Istanbul. This recognition can contribute to the city’s promotional global scale, attracting more visitors, boosting its reputation as a sought after destination for future events,” Eresin said.
“That’s why it’s very, very important — not occupancy-wise, but that’s why it’s a very important opportunity for Istanbul.”
It’s hard to measure exactly how worldwide exposure to destinations like Istanbul plays out in the long run, but there are ways to measure economic growth over the years.
When Istanbul hosted the same championship event in 2005 between Liverpool and AC Milan, some of the roughly 60,000 visitors had to sleep outside because there were not enough hotel rooms, Eresin said.
“Since then, the number of rooms in Istanbul really increased a lot. And we didn’t have any problem to host them in Istanbul now,” she said.
Earlier in her career, Eresin recalls telling tourists that there were 350 hotels in Istanbul. That number rose to 1,000 a bit later, and now it’s 3,000, with more under construction. That includes many more international brands and luxury options, which didn’t really exist a number of years ago.
That was not because of the 2005 game alone, of course, but as Istanbul has continued hosting sporting events and other events over the years, the city of 16 million has become more of a destination.
“It’s more important for us that the people will recognize … the capacity of Istanbul for future events in Istanbul,” Eresin said.
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The city has hosted a number of sporting events over the years, among them: Turkish Grand Prix Formula 1 races, presidential cycling and yachting races, European Athletics Indoor Championships, EuroLeague Women Final Four, and the UEFA Super Cup.
Istanbul was scheduled to host the event in 2020, but it was moved to Lisbon because of the pandemic. Istanbul was the choice again in 2021, but it was moved to Porto for the same reason.
Sports tourism remains one of the fastest growing sectors for tourism — for Istanbul as well as other markets worldwide. Capitalizing on the exposure that comes from those events is part of the city’s overall approach to increasing tourism and economic development, according to Yalçın Lokmanhekim, general manager for the Türkiye Tourism Promotion and Development Agency.
In conjunction with the final this weekend, the city is hosting the UEFA Champions Festival, which includes concerts and branding from GoTürkiye, the country’s official tourism promotion platform.
Turkey hosts a number of other cultural events, such as the Istanbul International Music Festival, and the tourism agency wants to keep that going.
“İstanbul aims to diversify its tourism offerings beyond sports events. The city seeks to highlight its culinary scene, traditional arts and crafts, shopping experiences, music festivals, and other cultural events. This diversification helps attract a broader range of tourists and ensures a more sustainable tourism industry,” Lokmanhekim stated in an email.
“These priorities work together to position Istanbul as a desirable and well-rounded destination for travelers.”
Photo credit: Istanbul is hosting the UEFA Champions League final between Manchester City and Inter Milan. sulox32 / Pixabay