The Arab Spring and Summer brought million of tourists to Turkey. Numbers are meaningful, the connection is clear: the data from the Turkish Institute for Statistics (TurkStat) and the UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) agree and indicate a 10.64% growth in the first 7 months of 2011 and more than 17.5 millions tourists (Turkish source) – on top British and then Germans, Ukrainians, Russians – with a contemporary decrease in the touristic sector in North Africa and the whole Middle East (-13% and -11% respectively in the first 2011 semester, according to the UN sources). The growth is not contingent but structural and follows a tendency which is the offshoot of a well-planned strategy developed in 2007 and oriented to 2023, when the Republic funded by Atatürk will celebrate its centenary. In 2002 Turkey was the 17th most-visited country in the world, in 2010 the 6th – behind France, USA, China, Spain, Italy and Great Britain – with 27 million tourists (a slight decrease in respect to the 28,6 million visitors of 2009) and Ertuğrul Günay, Minister for Tourism and Culture, already declared that 30 millions are the 2011 final goal.
Around 2 million tourists come every year from Arab countries, especially from the rich Gulf states; in 2011 – also because of the instability in Egypt, Tunisia and Syria, traditional and desirable destinations – the first, partial esteems foresee a 30/35% growth in the arrivals. Bander bin Fahd Al-Fehaid, president of the Arab Tourist Organization (an independent organization operating in the framework of the Arab League, headquartered in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia), toured Turkey in July and August to conclude new partnerships and press for investments. He named, in an interview with the press agency Anadolu, the reasons for the Turkish success in the Arab world: natural beauties, healthy environment, cultural and religious ties. The list is however reductive and should be completed with at least two more factors: luxury-brands shopping in the new malls mushrooming all over Istanbul, where clerks and owners are enthusiastic with the high purchasing volume of the Arab tourists; and excellent cinematographic products, like the Turkish soap-operas, which in the last years contributed to spread out in the whole Islamic World an open and saucy (and sometimes even controversial on male-female and modernity-tradition issues) model of society, and the historic TV-serials about the Ottoman Age, like the 2011 success Muhteşem Yüzyıl – the Magnificent Century, played on the power&passion story between Soliman the Magnificent and Roxelana. These serials are so popular and inspiring that many tourists and entire families are led to visit the most important locations backgrounding the stories, or the neighborhoods where TV-stars are said to more frequently appear. In 2010 and 2011 Ramadan took place in summer, which also provided incentives for Islamic-compatible holidays, while the events connected to Istanbul 2010 European Capital of Culture (even though they did not attract the expected number of tourists in a short-term perspective) also contributed to spread out a warm and dynamic image of the old Ottoman capital.
The experience of Istanbul 2010 is also important from another point of view, being emblematic of the new way of managing tourism in Turkey, based (at least in the intentions) on a high-quality, more professional, diversified and eco-sustainable offer. Opposition to this new deal were big, its success only partial, but it started a process of revolution in tourism managing aiming at overcoming the paralyzing immobility of bureaucracy through the cooperation between public and private, the sharing of projects between (domestic and foreign) institutions, and an economically virtuous administration of the Turkish cultural capital. Just to make an example, in 2009 museums and archaeological sites (first in Istanbul, then in the rest of the country) were finally provided with coffee bars, food courts, bookshops with gadgets and handcrafted objects, cloakrooms and luggage deposits, audio-guides and brochures, and didactic services. The managing of those services was given in an 8-years contract to the private holing Bilkent (owner also of an university in Ankara), which already made them more modern, cozy and profitable: in 2011 the visitors increased, respect to 2010, of 22%. Another innovation, prepared for Istanbul 2010 but launched just a few weeks ago by Minister Günay himself, was the “Museum Pass Istanbul” a card allowing tourists to visit all the most important monuments and museums for 72 hours, without queues and at the price 72 Turkish pounds (30 Euro), while also offering discounts for some private museums.
The Turkish development strategy for tourism, however, is not only focused on big cities or bathing mass tourism on the Aegean and Mediterranean shores – on the contrary, the intention (explicitly expressed on official documents) is to enrich the offer in order to reach new markets and high-income groups, by getting back to the tradition or by completely innovating. Important tourist branches will be the nautical, thermal and wellness, golf, winter sport, environmental and congress tourism. The declared goal is to reach before 2023 at least the 5th place (at the moment occupied by Italy) in the ranking of the most-visited countries and the same position in the ranking of tourism-generated income. Furthermore, these two goals will have a positive fall-out both on the general employment level (there are already selective interventions for the education and professionalization of workers at every level) and on the recovery of the economically weakest areas of the country, also thanks to the selection of nine issue-areas and five tourism development channels where to focus investments and promoting activities. Key-words are planing, cooperation between public and private, an active role for local authorities, developing of managerial skills.
Finally, among the different channels, a special attention is reserved to faith and religious tourism, for the biggest part comprehended in the cultural and naturalistic development of the South-Eastern area with Kurdish majority, the weakest and most troubled Turkey’s region (because of the civil war with the PKK). Religion as a development tool, involving some of the oldest cities in Anatolia and in the region between Tigris and Euphrates (extremely important for all the monotheistic religions): Şanlıurfa (ancient Edessa, city of Abraham), Antioch, Tarsus, Diyarbakır, Gaziantep, Siirt, Mardin. Cities which need to be recovered from an urban perspective and developed as destinations for travelers and pilgrims of every faith. The religious channel was one of the pieces of Minister Gunay’s political project, who actively engaged himself for the recognition of equal dignity for all religions present in Turkey from the beginning, who financed the restoration and the re-opening to worship (even if just for a few religiously relevant days at year) of churches and sanctuaries from the last period of the Ottoman Empire, and who publicly and repeatedly diffused a message of precious tolerance towards minorities – like when, in the occasion of the inauguration of a Greek painters exhibition in Istanbul, organized in the old stables of the imperial palace of Topkapı last July, in a speech with the ecumenical patriarch Bartholomew I, stated that Greek-orthodox believers “are one of the many colors of our cultural rainbow, an native population from Anatolia […] which is not extraneous to our culture and to our country”.
A country which is now able to profit, from a touristic point of view, of the Arab spring because it is getting better organized and more open.