Turkey’s tourism sector recovering slowly after devastating earthquake

After months of hosting displaced survivors of Turkey’s massive earthquake in his Antalya hotels, Hakan Saatcioglu hopes his rooms will soon be filled with tourists again after the temporary guests were transferred elsewhere by the government.

Saatcioglu, the coordinator of Limak International Hotels & Resorts, is one of many in hospitality expecting to see Turkey’s economically vital tourism sector recover from a quake that dragged down bookings and hotel stays.

“The government has kept its promise” and raised hoteliers’ hopes, Saarcioglu said, by moving quake survivors to guesthouses and dormitories, easing fears that hotel rooms would be blocked to tourists as the peak summer season approaches.

But tourism has been slow to rebound following the tremors that devastated swathes of Turkey’s southeast on Feb. 6, killing more than 50,000 people, flattening towns and cities and leaving hundreds of thousands homeless.

The quake has caused tourists to think twice before booking a trip to Turkey, a major Mediterranean holiday destination.

Tourism revenue is critical to Turkey as President Erdogan focuses on reducing the current account deficit – $48.8 billion last year – to tackle high inflation and interest rates.

But the recovery has been halting. Stays of two nights or more in Istanbul were down 7 percent compared to 2019 two weeks before the earthquake, but are now down 31 percent, according to figures compiled by travel data firm ForwardKeys.

A drop in new bookings means less revenue for travel professionals and the economy at large, said Olivier Ponti, ForwardKeys’ vice president for insights.

“After months of excellent performance, when the country was leading the travel recovery in Europe (after the COVID pandemic), international tourism to Turkey is clearly taking a nosedive,” he told Reuters.

Before the quake, officials had hoped for a strong year on the back of a surge of tourists last year as the pandemic abated.

Foreign visitors arriving in Turkey jumped 80 percent year-on-year to 44.56 million in 2022, though that was still just short of the record 45.06 million people in 2019.

Despite strong bookings recently across the travel sector in Europe as a whole, Turkey has not been able to regain momentum.

“The year started strong in terms of bookings, but it became sluggish after the quake. Now bookings have recovered a bit but have not reached their previous pace,” said Kadir Ugur, chairman of Germany and Switzerland-based tour operator Bentour Reisen, which specializes in travel to Turkey.

“People are gripped by fear when you say another big disaster is waiting to happen in Istanbul.”

The stakes are high for Turkey as tourism contributes about 10 percent to its GDP, and around 1.7 million people worked in accommodation and food services in 2022 – about 5 percent of total employment.

Looming elections

Elections slated for May 14 are also keeping tourists away out of fear of potential disruptions around the historic vote in which President Tayyip Erdogan faces the biggest political challenge of his two-decade rule.

Kasim Zoto, chairman of the Armada Hotel in Istanbul, said he was “on edge” ahead of the elections as the hotel had offered free cancellations up to within 48 hours of check-in and expect that could be used.

Such cancellations would push back a potential recovery further even though hoteliers are anxious to fill their rooms.

“Bookings recovered in April but the bookings for May -especially for the first two weeks of May – are low due to upcoming elections,” said Ali Kirli, head of the tourism commission of Marmaris, a popular Aegean seaside destination.

A potential return to expected pre-earthquake travel figures is likely after elections wrap up, tourism officials said, especially as peak summer travel demand to Turkey ramps up.

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