Turkey faces critical week for tourism as attractions remain deserted

Turkey is facing a critical week to restart its tourism industry, which is still in virtual lockdown as visitors from Europe and Russia are told to stay away by their governments, Reuters reported on Monday.

The country’s Mediterranean coastline and historic attractions are largely devoid of foreign visitors as travel warnings from key countries remain in place. Turkey is hoping to at least salvage part of its tourism season and has readied hotels for any influx, Reuters said.

While many hotel owners are still deciding whether to re-open, Tourism Minister Mehmet Ersoy told Reuters that he hoped Turkey could attract up to half of last year’s 45 million arrivals. Its tourism industry earned a record $34.9 billion in 2019 and expected to break that record in 2020 before the coronavirus struck in March.

Ersoy said talks with Russia, Germany and Britain on beginning on restarting regular flights for holidaymakers should reach some conclusions by early next week. Tourism accounts for up to 12 percent of economic output and Turkey relies on the hard currency earnings to fund a current account deficit and bolster the value of the lira.

Turkey has introduced a comprehensive programme of health and hygiene checks and measures to convince foreigners and their governments that the country is a safe place to visit. More than 600 hotels have applied for certification, Reuters said.

The historical town centre of the tourist hub of Antalya was virtually empty at the weekend and very few foreign tourists were seen at hotels, Reuters reported.

"The next 10 days will be critical as decisions are made on borders ... so far it's not clear how international traffic will start," Ersoy said.

If new outbreaks of COVID-19 occurred because of the resumption of tourism, Turkey would watch the numbers and take decisions with its scientific committee, Ersoy said.

Turkey hopes flights from Russia, the biggest contributor to visitor numbers last year, will restart in mid-July. Germany, which ranks second, has a travel warning in place on Turkey that is due to last until the end of August. But Ankara is holding talks with Berlin about lifting it at an earlier date.

The Turkish government ended a lockdown on its major cities at the start of June and allowed domestic travel by air and road. It has also re-opened its airports to international travel. New cases of the coronavirus are running at between about 1,200 and 1,400 per day.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said at the weekend that Turkey had lost some ground in the fight against COVID-19, urging citizens to wear face masks and keep to social distancing rules.  

"Tourism is probably the sector which will go through the longest recession" and its seasonal workers face "a very bad period," said Seyfettin Gürsel, economist at Istanbul's Bahçeşehir University, according to Reuters.

Okan Osman, who arrived in Antalya from Frankfurt, was one of very few tourists to be staying in the city, which he said was "much better and cleaner" than years past.

"Of course it's difficult for everyone and for the staff, but they seem to have been well trained and everyone is really well prepared," Osman said.