Turkey seeks to spare tourism of pandemic resurgence

Turkey has pinned high hopes for this year’s tourism season, seeking to double visitor numbers despite a series of COVID-19 related setbacks.

Culture and Tourism Minister Mehmet Nuri Ersoy predicted a v-shaped recovery for the sector, saying the government hopes to increase visitor numbers to 31 million and earn 23.3 billion U.S. dollars in 2021.

But a sharp spike in daily coronavirus cases and fatalities, which have hit record numbers in April, and a decision to cancel charter flights to the country until the start of June by Russia, the biggest source of visitors, is dashing hopes for a strong revival, according to industry practitioners.

“This is certainly not the beginning that we had hoped for. The absence of Russian tourists will be felt in our region and the sector,” Kayhan Birsel, the manager of a medium-sized hotel in Turkey’s Mediterranean tourism hub of Antalya, told Xinhua.

Antalya is home to hundreds of tourism resorts and ancient sites, receiving millions of visitors each year.

“We can turn this tide around by stricter nationwide anti-COVID-19 measures, which will help reduce infection numbers,” Birsel said, indicating that tourism workers are getting ready to welcome foreign visitors with the Safe Tourism Certificate, delivered by the Health Ministry.

The inoculation of workers serving at tourism facilities, including hotels, restaurants, and travel agencies, has started earlier this month within a mass inoculation drive. Turkey plans to complete the vaccination of all tourism industry employees against COVID-19 before the end of May.

Tourism is the most significant source of foreign exchange revenue for Turkey, helping to spur economic growth and finance its gaping current account deficit.

In 2020, Turkey hosted around 16 million tourists with 12 billion dollars in revenues, marking an over 65 percent decrease compared to 2019.

Turkey attracted 7 million tourists from Russia in 2019. And even under pandemic conditions, more than 2 million Russian tourists visited last year.

Muberra Ersin, head of the Hotel Association of Turkey, said that the flight restrictions to Turkey would cause a loss of 1.5 billion dollars for the ailing industry.

“This disappointing decision will, unfortunately, have an impact on revenues and the number of visitors for this year,” she told a local media outlet.

The Association of Turkish Travel Agencies organized a virtual international tourism forum on Tuesday, with the attendance of sector representatives from Britain, Germany, Italy, and Greece.

During the forum, the participants sought solutions to the sector’s problems and discussed the industry’s future amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Firuz Baglikaya, head of the Association of Turkish Travel Agencies, insisted that he remains confident in Turkey’s tourism potential despite “heavy losses” in industry stakeholders due to the fallout of the pandemic.

Despite a COVID-19 inoculation drive launched in January in Turkey, the daily cases hit a record high of more than 60,000, putting on hold and reversing a normalization process launched in March.

Turkey has imposed a “partial closure” for the first two weeks of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan to curb the infection surge, but experts are calling for a full lockdown, at least until mid-May.

“The current state of Turkey’s fight against COVID-19 is not, unfortunately promising a good year for the tourism sector, which hopes to launch the season by June,” Serkan Demirtas, a foreign policy analyst, told Xinhua.

Demirtas called on the government to rush to re-assess the situation and take harsher measures. Otherwise, he warned, 2021 might be another lost year for the Turkish tourism industry.