Turkey risks loss of culture with embrace of Arab tourists - Independent

A drop in the number of Western visitors as a result of security concerns and increased Arab arrivals due to post-Arab spring instability have prodded Turkey to alter its tourism profile, potentially eroding Turkish culture, said an analysis on Wednesday in Britain’s Independent newspaper. 

Turkey suffered a failed coup in July 2016, shortly after a series of suicide bomb attacks, which made the country a security risk for most Western countries. Starting in 2011, uprisings in the Middle East, and the instability that followed, took a handful of Arab countries off the list of safe travel destinations, Independent reporter Şebnem Arsu said.  

“Turkey stepped in as an attractive alternative where Arab nationals could feel, even partially, at home religiously and culturally while enjoying the liberties of an almost European country,” said Arsu. 

From 2015 to 2018, the number of Western tourists coming to Turkey fell by 9 percent, to 17.3 million, while visitors from Middle Eastern states like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Iraq increased by more than 26 percent, to 4.5 million, according to Turkey’s Ministry of Tourism. 

In 2018 alone, the number of Arab tourists increased nearly 30 percent while visitors from China increased by more than 66 percent. Turkey’s Middle Eastern Tourism and Travel Agents Association (OTSAD) was founded with 40 members in 2015, but now has 700. 

“Turkey is only 3.5 hours away from many of these countries, relatively cheap and has an unmatchable historical texture, all of which boosted our businesses,” OTSAD head Hüseyin Kırk told the Independent. 

Gulf nationals now fill Istiklal Avenue, Istanbul’s main pedestrian thoroughfare, and line up in front of restaurants like Hatay Medeniyetleri Sofrasi, a kebab-shop chain.

“Westerners used to come here looking for our restaurants, our music, our museums, but tourists from the Middle East have no such expectations. Now everything’s about them feeling at home,” said Kazim Oker, the restaurant’s doorman.

Hookah cafes and sandwich buffets advertise in Arabic and play Middle Eastern music, while traditional spots like Hacı Abdullah Lokantası, which dates back to 1888, sit mostly empty. 

“If Europeans do not come, the chances of survival for culturally profound places like ours will be very slim. We would lose, but so will the country,” Turgut Gülen, whose family founded the restaurant, told the Independent. 

Years ago, the four-story Sultanahmet Pub would keep 65 waiters on staff in summer, while today it keeps eight, according to owner Ceyhun Palak. “There’s no longer diversity or anything culturally Turkish when you look around,” he said.

Critics say Turkey’s new tourism profile misrepresents the country in irreversible ways, especially among tourists unable to differentiate between Turks and Gulf Arabs. 

“Oh, are they not Turkish?” Victor Vloeberghs, an engineering student from Belgium, asked when he heard that a group of approaching women in black chadors were from Saudi Arabia. 

“It’s impossible for us to tell the difference,” he said, adding that Turkey felt “local and authentic”. 

Turkey’s tourism ministry said it planned to launch a new agency that would devise a fresh strategy to promote the country globally, according to the Independent. One reason behind the recent shift is that a visitor from Saudi Arabia spends around $1,500 per day, while the average Western tourist spends $647, according to OSTAD. 

“In response to this new profile of tourists that have strong purchasing power, we’re compromising our core cultural resources and habits,” said Bahattin Yücel, a former tourism minister. “If continued, we’d lose the group of consumers that come to Turkey for what she is.”