Tourist num­bers plum­met af­ter Is­tan­bul at­tack

The Myanmar Times - - Business -

THE tourists are so scarce you can hear their foot­steps clat­ter­ing down the empty shop­ping street. Nearly a week af­ter the deadly air­port bomb­ings, it is eerily quiet in Is­tan­bul.

The magic of Turkey’s big­gest city has been se­duc­ing vis­i­tors for cen­turies, from its ar­ray of his­toric mosques and palaces to its stun­ning views over the sparkling Bospho­rus.

But for peo­ple work­ing in the once-thriv­ing tourist trade, last week’s gun and sui­cide-bomb spree rep­re­sents one more nail in the cof­fin for an in­dus­try al­ready reel­ing from a string of at­tacks this year.

“It’s dis­as­trous,” said Orhan Son­mez as he stood hope­lessly of­fer­ing tours of the Ha­gia Sophia, the cav­ernous for­mer mosque and church that is now a mu­seum.

“All my life I’ve been a tour guide. Most of us have come to a turn­ing point where we don’t know if we can go on. It’s tragic.”

Restau­rants sit empty in the Sul­tanah­met tourist district, and fives­tar ho­tel rooms can be booked for bar­gain prices.

In hap­pier years the queues out­side the Ha­gia Sophia might have stretched an hour or longer at this time of year – to­day you can walk straight in and share the place with just a smat­ter­ing of other vis­i­tors.

To add to the ghost town feel, many Is­tan­bu­lites have left the city for Bayram, a nine-day na­tion­wide hol­i­day that be­gan on July 2.

Nine­teen for­eign­ers were among the 45 peo­ple killed at Ataturk air­port by sus­pected Is­lamic State ji­hadists, and an­a­lysts say the at­tack may have been a de­lib­er­ate at­tempt to weaken the Turk­ish state by hit­ting its tourist in­dus­try.

The group had al­ready been blamed for a Jan­uary sui­cide blast that killed 12 Ger­man tourists in Sul­tanah­met, while three Is­raelis and an Ira­nian died in an­other on the Istik­lal shop­ping street in March.

The TAK, a rad­i­cal Kur­dish group that has car­ried out sev­eral at­tacks in Turkey this year, also warned for­eign tourists to stay away af­ter it killed 11 peo­ple in an Is­tan­bul car bomb­ing in June.

The United States, Ger­many and sev­eral other coun­tries have warned their na­tion­als against threats in Turkey, which is a can­di­date to join the Euro­pean Union.

Those still ar­riv­ing say they are en­joy­ing the peace and quiet, while tak­ing a philo­soph­i­cal ap­proach at a time when ji­hadist at­tacks have gone global.

“This could hap­pen in any city – it’s an un­lucky lot­tery,” said Ir­ish vis­i­tor Nessa Fee­han, pe­rus­ing Sul­tan­hamet’s empty shops as she whiled away a stopover on her way to In­dia.

“The peo­ple are re­ally friendly, and I re­ally think I’ll come back and spend some more time here.”

In May, Turkey suf­fered its worst drop-off in vis­its in 22 years – down 35 per­cent from a year ago – as an in­dus­try which or­di­nar­ily brings in 30 bil­lion euros (US$33.2 bil­lion) went into free-fall.

This was partly a re­sult of a Rus­sian ban on Turk­ish pack­age hol­i­days that Moscow had slapped on Ankara over a bit­ter diplo­matic row.

That ban was lifted last week as the two coun­tries made up – cause for cel­e­bra­tion in the re­sort prov­ince of An­talya, where Rus­sians tra­di­tion­ally come to sun them­selves in their droves.

That will be a boost for the tourist in­dus­try as a whole, but Rus­sians tend to plump for all-in­clu­sive deals on Turkey’s turquoise coast rather than head­ing to Is­tan­bul to soak up his­tory.

“If it goes on like this, many shops will close,” said Is­mail Celebi, wor­ry­ing at a string of prayer beads in one hand as he sat at the gleam­ing counter of his jew­ellery shop.

“I’m think­ing of mov­ing to Amer­ica. I can’t make money here.”

The large Chi­nese tour groups still ar­riv­ing are about the only bright spot on the hori­zon, said Mr Celebi, adding that they spend “crazy money”.

“But it’s not enough,” he said. “We need Amer­i­cans. We need Euro­peans.”

His shop is just a stone’s throw from the scene of the Sul­tanah­met bomb­ing that left a dozen Ger­mans dead six months ago – and Mr Celebi said he didn’t blame peo­ple for not want­ing to come.

“Even I’m afraid to come to work here,” he said. –

Photo: EPA

A woman takes a pic­ture of the Ha­gia Sofia in Is­tan­bul, Turkey, on July 3.

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