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Bleak outlook for Turkey tourism after suicide attacks at airport

world Updated: Jun 29, 2016 22:21 IST
AFP
AFP
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Mourners carry the coffin of Muhammed Eymen Demirci, killed on Tuesday by the blasts in Istanbul's Ataturk airport, during the funeral in Istanbul's Basaksehir neighborhood on Wednesday. Suicide attackers killed dozens and wounded scores of others at the busy airport late on Tuesday.(AP)

Turkey’s already limping tourism industry is suffering a fresh grievous blow after the latest in a series of attacks targeted at tourists claimed dozens of lives, analysts said on Wednesday.

The suicide bombings at Istanbul’s Ataturk airport – which also left more than 200 wounded – come just weeks after Kurdish separatists issued a warning to travellers against visiting the country as they claimed responsibility for a June 7 car bombing.

For a destination which has sold itself to prospective visitors from abroad using its storied monuments – especially sites like the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia church in the heart of Istanbul – the explosions are economically devastating.

“This is very bad news for tourism and more generally for air travel. It’s an attack that directly targeted travellers.” said Jean-Pierre Mas, head of French travel agencies association Entreprises du Voyage.

Figures released by the Turkish tourism ministry showed the month of May had already seen the worst drop-off in visits in 22 years, down 35% on 2015’s figure.

This was also a result of a ban on Turkey travel for Russians, which was however lifted on Wednesday.

Taleb Rifai, head of the UN’s World Tourism Organisation, said in a statement the terror attack was evidence of a “global threat” facing the tourism sector.

Turkish flags fly at half mast following Tuesday's blasts in Istanbul. (Reuters)

In Tuesday’s attack, bombers believed to be linked to the Islamic State group struck at the home of flag carrier Turkish Airlines and “the hub of the tourism industry”, said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkey research programme at the Washington Institute.

It’s Istanbul’s “second most emblematic location after Taksim square”, the analyst said.

Turkish Airlines – which in May posted a massive loss of $421 million for the first quarter of 2016 – is “the only Turkish company known abroad”, Cagaptay pointed out.

The conservative government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had hoped to make the 49% state-owned carrier a top ten global player.

Adverts for the airline have been prominent at June’s Euro 2016 football tournament in France as it seeks to woo passengers back aboard its fleet, one of the most modern in the world, in the wake of multiple bombings that have driven away business.

Tourist hotspots targeted

2016 has seen a slew of mass killings in Turkey, several blamed on either Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK) separatists or the Islamic State. Over the year to June, almost 200 people have been killed and thousands wounded in bombings in Istanbul and Ankara.

A bombing in Istanbul’s historic Sultanahmet square in January claimed the lives of 11 German tourists, while three Israelis and an Iranian died in a blast on the bustling Istiklal shopping street in March. Both attacks were blamed on the Islamic State.

Meanwhile, February and March car bombings in Ankara claimed by TAK killed at least 63 people between them.

The result has been meltdown for an industry which ordinarily brings in close to 30 billion euros ($33.2 billion) in foreign currency each year.

Visitor figures from countries that usually send crowds of sun-seeking tourists, such as Germany and Britain, have been particularly weak.

Russia lifts ban

And almost 90% of the usual tally of Russian visitors has stayed away as Ankara and Moscow entered a war of words after Turkish forces downed a Russian warplane in November.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Wednesday he would lift travel restrictions put in place after the incident as relations thawed between Ankara and Moscow.

But that’s unlikely to do much to plug the gap created by Turkey’s 23% plunge in tourist numbers over the first five months of the year. In the face of the bombings, the government offered a few millions of euros in subsidies to the stricken tourism sector in spring.

June sees Turks preparing to embark on their long Bayram holiday, when they often choose to travel.And the summer sun and inviting turquoise seas ought to be drawing westerners in huge numbers as the season gets underway.

Instead, French travel expert Mas said he had already seen a 61% plummet in the number of people booking holidays in Turkey for this summer. “That drop will inevitably worsen,” he said.

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