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As German spat deepens, Turkey draws tourists from elsewhere

Facing further decline in German visitors due to political tensions, Turkey's tourism industry has already begun courting Middle Eastern and Balkan markets. Diego Cupolo reports from Antalya, Turkey.

With dramatic mountains rising steeply from turquoise waters lined by natural sand beaches, Turkey's Mediterranean coast once seemed worlds away from the political turbulence in Ankara. Known as the Turkish Riviera, the region attracted record numbers of European tourists just two years ago but has struggled to maintain similar inflows as diplomatic spats deepened between EU leaders and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

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Sitting at one of many empty tables at the Dem-Lik Café Bar in central Antalya, the main city in the region, manager Necmettin Can Gulseven said it's been a while since he's seen large groups of Europeans in the district.

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"A few years ago, we used to have 15 tables of Europeans every night, mostly Germans, but [Friday] night we had just three tables from Europe, which is not good considering it's high season," he told DW.

Gulseven said the worsening security situation was the main cause as Turkey has undergone a coup attempt and dozens of terrorist attacks over the last year. For safety measures, he said special forces now patrol the historic Roman port where his café is located, much to the dismay of tourists.

"Sometimes [the police] stop by our bar at night," Gulseven told DW. "They don't do anything, just see who's here, but it feels like they're going to conduct a raid, and even if our customers don't have anything to hide, they get nervous and leave immediately after this happens."

In a move that could further strain Turkey's tourism industry, German officials have advised their citizens against travelling or doing business in the country. On Thursday, Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said tourists' safety could not be guaranteed in Turkey after the jailing of German human rights activist Peter Steudtner earlier this month.

Empty tables in Antalya's Dem-Lik Café Bar

These tables at Antalya's Dem-Lik Café Bar would have been full two years ago

The warnings could have dire consequences as Germans make up the largest group of visitors to Turkey, accounting for 15 percent of the country's tourists last year. Yet the number of European visitors has been declining since 2014, and with tourism accounting for about 13 percent of the Turkey's gross domestic product, many hotel operators in Antalya have already begun reorienting their marketing towards Middle Eastern and Balkan nations to compensate for their losses.

'This is politics and we can't do anything'

Watching a steady stream of clients in bathing suits head to a beach across the street, Savas Er, a manager at Antalya's Sealife Family Resort Hotel, said business was good. Having worked in the tourism industry since 1988, Er said he's seen many political crises come and go and that the current German-Turkish spat didn't concern him, as it would most likely be temporary.

In 2016, his hotel witnessed a sharp drop in visitors from Russia after the Turkish air force shot down a Russian plane flying on its southern border. The resulting political upheaval put pressure on his hotel as Russians make up the second largest group of tourists in Antalya, but the tensions have since eased, and now his bookings from Russian are back to 2015 levels.

Rows of parasols line a beach in Antalya

Bookings from Russian tourists have recovered since Turkey shot down a Russian plane

To survive the slump periods caused by such confrontations, Er said his hotel holds tourism fairs in new markets and hires sales coordinators abroad to draw in tourists of varied nationalities. This summer, he's been hosting more clients from Iran, Iraq and the Balkans. When asked how he will manage a possible reduction in German tourists, he says it's out of his hands.

"This is politics, and we can't do anything," Er said. "We just focus on our jobs. Erdogan and Merkel will have to talk it out. We keep our relations with customers, not politicians."

Keeping customer relations seems to be essential for hotel workers in Antalya, as several told DW they often get repeat customers from Germany. A receptionist at the Porto Bello Hotel Resort up the street said he received calls over the weekend from German clients who wanted to confirm their upcoming reservations despite the government advisory.

"They know us and know what we offer so if there's a crisis in Turkey, they see Antalya as a different country," the receptionist said, asking to remain anonymous. "Many come here once a year. Even if you gave them money they wouldn't go to another city in Turkey."

More Middle Eastern clients

While resorts have been managing fluctuations in tourism, some smaller boutique hotels in the Antalya's old city have been less fortunate. The Hotel Reutlingen used to get 70 percent of its bookings from Germany, but this year that number has dropped to just 10 percent, said Mustafa, a hotel manager who gave only his first name.

Beachgoers enjoy the sun in Antalya, Turkey

Visitors from Arab countries could help make up for the decline in Germans

Now the hotel receives mostly Arab tourists, Mustafa said, and revenues have been too weak to stay open year-round, as the hotel did in the past. Still, he expressed support for Erdogan's stance, saying more Middle Eastern visitors could prop up Turkey's tourism industry.

"The EU is trying to teach us a lesson," Mustafa said. "They are playing with Turkey like a toy, and we've had enough. We're making our own path and we'll be so good in the future that tourists won't be able to stay away."

Nearby, along the coastline, a German couple enjoyed the view while sitting in front of their modest RV camper. Commenting anonymously, they said recent developments made them nervous, but that they wouldn't impact their vacation.

"We've been here three months and have had no problems," one said. "We like Turkey very much."

The Antalya Chamber of Commerce and Ministry of Tourism did not respond immediately to requests for comment.

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