Tourists came, they spent, they left. Now, Istanbul's goal is that they come back and tell their friends.
Liam McDonald, Andrew Newell, and their group of six friends and family spent roughly $1,200 each for flights and hotels in Istanbul this weekend.
They had been waiting to see which teams would be playing at the UEFA Champions League final when their favorite football team, Manchester City, beat Real Madrid in the semi-final three weeks ago. That’s when they booked the trip from Dublin.
They travel about once a month from Dublin to Manchester for games during the season. When they learned their team would be in the final, there was no question that they would take their first trip to Istanbul.
“This is a once in a lifetime experience,” McDonald said.
Their group wasn’t the only one that jumped to book their flights and hotels. Hotel occupancy — not including short-term rentals through platforms like Airbnb — in Istanbul increased roughly 20 percent during the period directly after the semi-final games. There were a third more flights this week from Manchester alone, totaling more than 9,300 passengers, according to data from aviation analytics firm Cirium.
Manchester City and Inter Milan each got 20,000 tickets to sell. Those teams’ sections on either end of the stadium were full of cheering fans, a sea of dark blue on the Italian end and another of light blue on the English side. There were 7,200 tickets for general sale, and the rest were allocated to sponsors to distribute. There were 71,412 people in attendance, according to the final count by the UEFA.
The ticket prices alone brought millions of dollars into the city. It’s hard to measure the additional direct economic impact from increased spending at hotels, restaurants, bars, and shops.
The restaurants and bars in the center of Istanbul were certainly lively during the nights leading up to the game, with visitors and locals wearing the jersey of the teams they support as well as souvenir scarves from numerous salesmen on the street.
Manchester City won the final on Saturday against Inter Milan 1-0, earning the team the UEFA season trophy for the first time.
Newell said the group wouldn’t be going to sleep that night. He did not set a budget for his trip, either, and he said he has no idea how much he’s spending.
“I don’t really care at all,” he said. “Worth every penny, this, to see them win.”
Besides the people who attended the game inside the stadium, there were thousands more gathered outside to support their teams and take part in the celebration. Some were standing in groups on the sidewalk, while others sat on blankets on the grass.
The event was largely peaceful, though there was a rambunctious crowd and a strong security presence.
Outside the stadium, countless police were monitoring every entrance and the spaces in between, holding riot shields as a preventative measure.
It was a long walk to the seat, with four pat-downs and bag checks along the way. It took some effort to push through disorderly crowds of non-ticket holders, one at the entrance to the stadium grounds and one packed against the stadium gate. As attendees readied their mobile tickets, some of the crowd behind them held up their phone cameras, seemingly attempting to capture a viable photo of others’ digital tickets. One person without a ticket almost broke through the gate barrier until he was pushed back.
As can be expected at a gathering with tens of thousands people, logistics on the game day was an issue.
The stadium is far from the city center, out of reach from much of the transportation system, therefore limiting arrival options.
Parts of the metro were rerouted for the event and certain entrances were closed. Google Maps didn’t get the memo, nor did some Turkish locals, apparent by confused looks on their faces as they approached the roped-off entrances. The bus schedule — not just the timing but also which buses were on the routes — was also inaccurate on Google Maps.
There was a parking lot outside of the stadium dedicated to the dozens of charter buses that brought attendees to the event. Some hadn’t even left their parking spaces nearly two hours after the game ended, while others were at a standstill along with taxis down a narrow road that led to the exit.
Despite any issues before or after the event, fans didn’t stop cheering as they exited the stadium and left the grounds.
Joshua Sutherst was part of a group of seven people, most of them wearing the winning game’s light blue jerseys, who were celebrating with each other outside after the game. They traveled to Istanbul from Manchester the day before. Sutherst and another group had traveled to Porto to see Manchester City in the final in 2022. That year, the team lost.
Sutherst had never been to Istanbul before, so the group set aside a day this weekend to see the famous attractions. In fact, it’s the furthest east he has been, so he wasn’t sure what to expect.
“Really cultural. Loads of good eateries … a lot of good places to have a drink,” Sutherst said.
“I think everyone’s been really welcoming, as well. It’s been, honestly, really good. I’ve really enjoyed it.”
Exposing new people to Istanbul is the higher goal that tourism professionals have when vouching that the city should host big sporting events and more. The idea is that fans are exposed to the city maybe for the first time, and it will occur to them that Istanbul is a worthy destination for future travel, driving that initial investment and economic impact even further.
So, did that plan work for Sutherst? Will he be back?
“Definitely,” he said.
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