Turkey is one of the most popular vacation destinations in the world, with most international tourists coming from Russia. Last year, around 4.7 million Russian tourists visited Turkey. German holidaymakers were the second-largest group, followed by Ukrainians.
But war and tourism don't really mix. While Turkey is not involved in the war between Russia and Ukraine, it will feel the impact if the war in its tourism sector. There are already clear indications of this now, well before the summer season gets underway.
Drop in demand and bookings
This year, people in Turkey's tourism industry are worried about the future. "The hotel sector is hardest hit by the war," says Firat Solakm, who runs a travel agency in Antalya, a popular Mediterranean resort town. "We should already be booked out for July and August, but there has been hardly any Russian demand, there are no bookings," he tells DW. Western sanctions levied on Russia largely explain this drop.
Many Russian airlines lease their aircraft from western companies. With western sanctions in place, if one of them were to land abroad, it could be seized.
"Flights are the biggest challenge," says Murat Yalcin Yalcinkaya, who heads the Antalya tour guide association. "Guests used to reach Antalya by charter flight, but that's no longer possible; we are trying to work out a solution. In the past, we received 5,000 to 9,000 guests per day — this May, we're expecting about 500."
Turkish companies are therefore seeking ways to get Russian tourists into the country. In the past, they simply flew to Turkey with Russian airlines and then back to Russia after their vacation. Now, Turkey's government is working to get Turkish aircraft to transport foreign guests, explains Deniz Ugur, managing director of the tour operator Bentour, which specializes in Turkish destinations. The move is designed to prop up the vital tourism industry, a key pillar of the economy.
The question, however, remains whether such a step would be counterproductive with regard to Western sanctions — or could it even strengthen Russia? Ugur does not think so: "In the past, Russia was making revenue, now Turkey is; this model strengthens Turkey and weakens Russia." He says Turkey is merely bringing in guests with purchasing power, and the real revenue is generated in Turkey itself.
Aside from these logistical issues, there is the problem of Russian credit cards no longer working abroad. Credit card issuers Mastercard and Visa have suspended their Russian operations. Yet Sberbank, Russia's biggest bank, recently announced that cards compatible with the Mir payment system established by the Central Bank of Russia would nd several other countries.
"Russian tourists in Turkey are paying in cash, or with Mir-compatible cards — Mastercard, Visa and others don't work anymore," confirms Samed Kizgin, a Turkey expert and travel security analyst with A3M Global Monitoring, a company that advises travel agencies and global enterprises. "Hoteliers and restaurateurs have adapted their services to this," he adds.
Fewer Russians and Ukrainians expected
Despite Turkey's best efforts to attract them, almost 50% fewer Russian tourists visited the country in March than over the same period last year, says Kizgin. Ugur, who has many contacts in Turkey, says the tourism industry presently expects some 1.5 to 1.7 million Russian guests — roughly one-third of the 4.7 million who streamed into Turkey in 2021.
Expectations are grimmer still with regard to Ukrainian tourists. While some 2 million visited in 2021, a mere 100,000 are expected this year. Men between the ages of 18 and 60 are currently not allowed to leave Ukraine — only women, children and elderly people would therefore able to visit Turkey. Whether they would even be willing or able to travel is another question altogether.
Can other tourists make up for the shortfall?
Turkey hopes visitors from other countries, such as Germany, will offset this shortfall in Russian and Ukrainian tourists. "We are seeing a marked rise in bookings by Germans this summer," says Torsten Schäfer, a spokesperson for Germany's travel association.
The eastern Mediterranean region, chiefly Turkey and Greece, are growing increasingly popular with German holidaymakers, according Schäfer. Even more so, he says, than countries such as Spain, which nevertheless remains Germany's favorite holiday destination.
But Cumhur Sefer, who is managing director of COOP TRR, a network of Turkish travel agencies, doubts other visitors can make up for this shortfall. "German holidaymakers won't fill this gap. To make up for it, their numbers would have to double," he points out.
Ugur projects some 40% more German holidaymakers in Turkey this year, along with 50% more British and some 60% more Polish guests compared with 2021.
Kizgin says in March this year, 13% of all tourists arriving in Turkey hailed from Iran — making tem the biggest group of visitors for that month.
Yet despite these promising signs, none of the experts believe Turkey can make up for the dramatic decline in Russian and Ukrainian holidaymakers this year.
This article was originally written in German.