Turkey’s rising regional status in the Arab world swept by popular uprisings against dictatorships is translating into a booming tourism sector at a time of chill in ties with one time ally Israel.
The number of Arab tourists visiting Turkey has dramatically increased over the recent years, making the country a favourite destination in the Arab world, while Israeli tourist numbers have plunged sharply, official data showed.
Only 61,950 Israeli citizens visited Turkey in the period from January to August this year, amounting to a 27 percent decrease compared to the same period in 2010, according to statistics from the Turkish tourism ministry.
“The figure is destined to be down further for the remaining months,” analyst Esen Caglar of the Ankara-based Economic Policy Research Institute said.
“Tensions with Israel on the political front merely hit the tourism sector and defence industry,” he added.
Once regional allies, with Turkey a favourite holiday destination for Israelis, relations between the Mediterranean neighbours have been in tatters since last year’s deadly Israeli commando raid on a Turkish aid vessel, killing nine people.
The bloodshed prompted Ankara to expel the Israeli ambassador and cut all bilateral military agreements.
“The drastic decrease in Israeli tourist numbers is directly linked with the political crisis between the two countries,” said Hasan Akcakayalioglu, vice-president of the Turkish-Israeli business council.
He said anti-Israeli protests in Turkey in the wake of the flotilla incident as well as the Israeli government’s temporary warning to its citizens not to visit Turkey contributed to the decline in tourist numbers.
The drop in tourist numbers is nearly 60 percent from 2009.
The decline came after Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan stormed off the stage at the World Economic Forum in 2009 after a heated debate on Gaza with Israel’s President Shimon Peres.
On the contrary, Turkey’s tourism sector is blooming with the Arab world where popular uprisings have jolted authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.
The number of Arab tourists visiting Turkey increased by 16 percent in the first eight months this year, according to the ministry’s statistics.
Istanbul is regarded as one of Turkey’s main tourism destinations as well as Antalya in the Mediterranean.
Some 1.4 million Arab tourists visited Turkey in the period from January to August this year, up from 1.2 million in the same period in 2010 and from nearly 912,000 in 2009.
“We expect to reach 1.7 million Arab tourists in 2011,” said Mehmet Habbab, head of the Turkish-Lebanese Business Council.
The popular revolt in Egypt that ousted the strongman Hosni Mubarak and the ongoing crackdown on opponents in Syria shifted tourists to Turkey, he said, also pointing to Turkey’s increasing daily charter flights to Middle Eastern countries.
Turkey’s Islamic-rooted government is enjoying growing popularity in the Arab world, mainly stemming from Erdogan’s strong confrontations with Israel at a time regional leaders were seen by their people as impotent when it comes to the Jewish state and the West.
But another factor is the popularity of Turkish soap operas in the region, with tourists eager to see the Ottoman palaces, ancient sites of Istanbul, and other locations featured in the television series.
“Wherever you go in the Arab world, people talk about Turkish soap operas. Last year Turkey got 67 million dollars in income solely from exporting TV series to Arab countries,” said Habbab.