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Travel

Turkish tourism workers in crisis

Empty hotel rooms, staff lay-offs, and failing businesses - not what one expects in one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world.

Turkey may boast thousands of miles of Aegean and Mediterranean coastline, pan-civilizational history, and the remains of the oldest temple on earth, but the travellers just aren't coming like they used to.

Tuesday's deadly assault on Istanbul saw suspected IS-linked assailants attack the international terminal of Istanbul Ataturk airport, claiming 43 lives. It was the latest in a string of mass-casualty attacks on Turkey's major cities that, along with a protracted and bloody war in the country's Kurdish south-east, has driven visitors away in their millions.

The wave of violence is important chiefly because of the high toll it carries on human suffering, not the effect on visitor numbers, but the tourism sector's travails have a considerable impact on the society.

“This attack will affect tourism, for certain, and it is a crisis” said Çetin Gürcün, the secretary-general of TURSAB, the Association of Turkish Travel Agencies.

The number of tourists arriving in Turkey has been in free-fall for months. In May alone the number of new tourist arrivals saw a 35 percent drop, on top of a 27 percent drop in April, according to figures compiled by Bloomberg from the Turkish Ministry of Tourism.

“But in some ways this was not just an attack on Istanbul but the whole world – Istanbul airport is a major world hub, connecting East to West, North to South and you can find hundreds of different nationalities there together every day. It's an attack on freedom to travel,” Çetin Gürcün told DW.

Turkey's tourism industry is crucial to the country's wider economy. Aside from being a source of foreign currency, the industry accounts for around four percent of Turkey's GDP and in 2015 generated more than $31 billion in revenue. Around eight percent of the workforce is employed directly or indirectly in the tourism sector.

In Istanbul the conditions are now so bad that smaller hotels are struggling to make ends meet. “Business is really terrible at the moment. Terrible, terrible, terrible,” said Kasım Balkanlı, manager of Hotel Miniature, a small establishment in Istanbul's historic Sultanahmet square, the heart of the city's tourist district.

“We used to have people coming from the USA, Europe, everywhere. Now I think we've had something like an eighty percent decrease on last year so there are really very few people coming,” Mr Balkanlı told DW.

“It's not just Istanbul; it's the same across the country. I don't have much hope that things will improve for a long time.”

It's not only bombings that are driving people away. After Germany, Russia was once the second most important source country for Turkish tourism but the numbers of Russians visiting has plummeted since the Turkish army shot down a Russian jet that temporarily violated its airspace earlier this year. Since then the number of Russian visitors has dropped by almost 95 percent.

The day before the airport attack, the Turkish government announced two major diplomatic moves - the normalisation of ties with Israel and a move towards rapprochement with Russia - that looked set to improve the prospects for tourism in Turkey. Now, industry workers say, both manoeuvres look small compared to the challenge of maintaining a secure environment for visitors.

“We came to an agreement with Russia and we are hopeful that in the second half of the year, while the crisis won't end, things will start to improve, but we're looking towards 2017 for that,” said Çetin Gürcün of TURSAB.

But hotels and other businesses working in tourism owe billions of dollars in loans to Turkey's domestic banks; loans that will be harder to repay now the industry is flailing.

“We will be watching hotels and other businesses closely when it comes to non-performing loans, because there's certainly a vulnerability there, but we will have to work with them on that,” Omer Aras, CEO of the Turkish bank Finansbank, told DW earlier this year.

The tourists that do come to Istanbul now tend to be more stoic in nature.

“Before I came my family was saying I shouldn't come to Turkey because it's too dangerous but I think you have to be brave; bad things happen back home all the time and can happen anywhere,” said Evan Clark, a tourist from Atlanta, Georgia, who was travelling to Istanbul airport on the metro for a return flight home the day after the airport attack.

“It's been fine while I was here but now I am a little nervous about going back to the airport,” he said.

Tom Stevenson (DW)