Canan Sevgili and Berna Suleymanoglu
Turkey’s tourism sector faces another lost season after a rapid coronavirus rise wiped out many early foreign bookings and prompted Russia, its top source of visitors, to halt flights and warn against travel this summer.
In a last-ditch move to cut infections and save the season, President Tayyip Erdogan last week imposed a lockdown through mid-May in part, he said, so that European countries did not leave Turkey behind as they re-open beaches, restaurants and travel.
The foreign cash that tourists spend is critical to offset Turkey’s heavy foreign debt, but revenues plunged 65 per cent last year when the pandemic first hit.
The tourism minister said that 30 million foreigners could arrive this year, twice as many as last, if the lockdown succeeds in lowering daily Covid-19 cases to below 5,000 from near 30,000 in recent days.
But travel agents, associations and hotels said they fear this year will be little better than last after the virus wave briefly ranked Turkey second globally in new cases just as the season kicked off, before it dropped back to fourth. Some Turkish and Russian agents see a difficult few months until August, when they say the Mediterranean and Aegean hot spots and historic sites in Istanbul and elsewhere could fill up again. Much will depend on last-minute bookings, they said.
“The lockdown decision will probably not be able to save the season” because it was taken too late, said Cem Polatoglu, general manager at Istanbul-based Andiamo Tour.
Even if the lockdown cuts daily coronavirus cases to below 5,000 by the end of May, as the government hopes, he said it takes time for countries to remove travel warnings “which means probably losing July too”.
Coronavirus cases topped 60,000 last month, leaving Turkey’s top five tourist sources — Russia, Germany, Britain, Bulgaria and Iran — with travel warnings in place.
Ankara said Moscow’s decision to halt most flights until June 1 blocked 500,000 tourists, compared to a total of 2.1 million Russians who came last year and some 6 million before the pandemic.
The flight ban could be extended. Deputy Prime Minister Tatiana Golikova said last week Russian operators should not sell tours even after June 1 until authorities decide.