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Tourism numbers rise in Turkey; global perception appears to improve

Heide Brandes / Red Dirt Report
The Turkish Minister of Culture and Tourism Nabi Avci said Turkey must also work harder to promote itself. He was among the panelists discussing Turkey's perception at the International Media Forum held in Antalya in May.
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“The perception is worse than the reality.”

ANATALYA, Turkey -- For Turkey and its tourism industry, that statement was repeated often during the International Media Forum held here in Antalya, Turkey in May as the country attempted to show media from around the world the “true” nature of Turkey.

Despite the unpredictability of terrorist attacks and political instability, as well as a travel bans from Russia after Turkey shot down a Russian jet, the number of international tourists to Turkey increased in April for the first time since late 2015.

According to the Republic of Turkey Ministry of Culture and Tourism, the number of foreign visitors to Turkey rose 18.1 percent in April over 2016 numbers, signalling a hope that Turkey’s embattled tourism sector may see an upswing.

It’s a jump from April 2016, when foreign visitors to Turkey dropped 28.07 percent from 2,437,263 visitors in 2015 to 1,753,045 visitors in 2016.

As the country’s travel and tourism industry reeled from the crisis brought about from Russia’s travel ban and the fall-out of terrorist attacks that, in one case, killed 10 German tourists in Istanbul, the country itself has a message to visitors and investors globally: “The perception is worse than the reality.”

CHANGING PERCEPTIONS

The International Media Forum, realized under the auspices of the Ministry of Economy, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism and the Turkish Exporters Assembly (TIM), and with the sponsorship of Turkish Airlines, Maxx Royal, IHKIB and Borsa Istanbul, was organized by the Switzerland-based international media group Global Connection Media SA (GC).

The tourism crisis in Turkey began in August 2015, but worsened after Turkey shot down the Russian jet near Syria. In response, Russia, which is Turkey’s second-largest tourism market, banned travel to Turkey for tourism in December 2015.

The effects were immediate. Russia’s travel ban to Turkey resulted in a staggering 92 percent decline in Russian arrivals in May 2016 with an overall drop of 35 percent to 2.49 million compared to a year earlier, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

According to an International Money Fund report, the terrorist attacks and political turmoil in 2016 resulted in more than 30 percent decline in European visitors. The annual Package Tour Market Report from Turkish research company Turizmdatabank showed that the popular vacation spot of Antalya was hit worst, with a 45 percent drop in foreign arrivals.

Some 1,400 hotels went up for sale in Antalya alone, prompting the Turkish government to introduce a financial package in 2016 to boost the tourism industry, including a $255 million Turkish Lira grant and a way for tourism firms to restructure debt.

Now, through aggressive re-branding and outreach, the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism hopes that tourists will again flock to Turkey for vacations.

“We see that popular opinion around the world has changed, in large part by the media,” said Mehmet Buyukeksi, chairman of the Turkish Exporters Assembly. “We tell people, ‘Come to Turkey. Discover your own story. Believe in us and trust in us.’”

The Turkish Minister of Culture and Tourism Nabi Avci said Turkey must also work harder to promote itself and look to unique tourism offerings like gastronomy tourism and multi-country cruise ship offerings for American tourists.

“We say as a motto to ‘discover your own potential,’ and it is a good motto. It also implies that Turkey needs to discover its own potential,” said Avci. “We have 10,000 years of selling Turkey as the bridge of cultures. Turkey is where the east meets the west and it meets in harmony.”

In 2014, the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism introduced a new promotional branding strategy with Turkey Home. With the introduction of the new Turkey Home campaign, the country consolidated all its different promotional campaigns under one slogan.

In a little over a year, the brand grew to second of all other competitive tourism brands of cities and countries in terms of total number of fans and followers across all social and digital media platforms.

In April, the Turkey Home campaign boasted of a global audience of more than 6.5 million, still holding the rank of second place globally, according to the Ministry of Culture and Tourism.

One of the major goals was the “improve the country’s perception and reputation on international, regional and national scale by conveying universal messages on Turkey’s sincerity, generosity, warmness, friendliness, kindness, credibility and safety.”

In 2016, the Turkish Exporters' Assembly announced a new campaign for the Turkey Brand, “Turkey - Discover the Potential,” which included an advertising campaign, video clips and other media to attract not only tourists, but foreign investments as well.

A big part of that perception push was to attract American visitors. However, tourism relations with the United States are not as strong as it should be either, Avci said. Six months ago, he met with American trade officials to explore what could be done to boost tourism from America to Turkey.

“The most appealing was through cruise ships,” he said. “The U.S. tourist profile shows they are very different from Russian guests. They tend to be upper-income and prefer cruise ships, and our research shows that they do not want to visit one place, but see multiple countries.”

The strategy, he said, is to form a partnership to offer package cruise tours to not only Turkey, but also countries like Greece and Israel. Gastronomy tourism could also offer a new market for foodies wanting to taste the culture.

“Next month in Istanbul, the Black Sea Economic Corporation will meet and ask what we can do with other countries  on joint projects, ask what kind of cooperation we can engage in to promote such tourism,” Avci said.

BAD PERCEPTION

For many speakers at the World Media Forum, the media played a big role in Turkey’s shaky reputation and clearly shows why Turkey has to show the world the “reality” of its country and not the “perception.

While gross travel income was approximately $18.7 billion last year, according to central bank data, this year’s April numbers were still the lowest for that month since 2010.

Turkey’s economy is also seeing a boost, especially after a referendum passed in April that gave President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sweeping powers by changing Turkey’s government from a parliamentary to a presidential republic.

Mehmet Simsek, deputy prime minister of Turkey, said the biggest problems facing the economy was inflation and the current deficit, but that the deficit is already on a decline.

“We would have been able to keep the deficit under control if it weren’t for the problems we faced in tourism last year. But I can say that the deficit will be on the decline. And in the past two years Turkey has gone through a real shock,” he said.

“This translated into inflation. We are working towards bringing inflation down to single digit level.”

Many of Turkey’s ministers also blamed the trend of Islamophobia in reduced visitors to Turkey. Avci said tourism is an important industry for the country, and could be used promote relations and open dialogue among different cultures while combating the ignorance that “has led to extremism and Islamophobia in today’s world.”

“Look at our country if you are open and see for yourself,” said Buyukeksi. “The power of media can crush perception, can topple governments and affect justice. Some media shows that bombs are dropping every day here and you can see that is not true. Come to Turkey.”

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Heide Brandes

Heide Brandes is an award-winning journalist and editor with more than 18 years of experience....

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