In the seaside resort of Marmaris, nestled between turquoise waters and pine-covered mountains on Turkey’s southwest coast, hotelier Mustafa Deliveli is preparing for a summer that he says could bring tourist activity to a halt. from the city.
Reservations at the Emre Hotel in Deliveli are at 15% of capacity for June, one of the “most important months of the season”, when its rooms are normally full, he said. But a wave of coronavirus in the spring prompted Russia, Germany and Britain, Turkey’s three largest tourist markets, to impose heavy travel restrictions – threatening a sector that provides millions of jobs and people. vital hard currencies.
“We’ve had our share of crises in tourism over the years, but it’s unprecedented,” said Deliveli, who has fired a third of its staff and closed half of the hotel to cut costs. . “We kept our heads above water last year and had high hopes for this season. It was a big disappointment.
A collapse in tourism would have repercussions on the economy at large. Turkey relies on foreign currency inflows from visitors to finance its external debt and a current account deficit of 5 percent of gross domestic product, as well as to replenish its stocks foreign exchange reserves exhausted to support a weak currency.
Tourist money has become even more critical since President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sacked the central bank governor in March, pushing foreign investors to dump $ 1.8 billion net of stocks and bonds Turkish.
In an effort to attract visitors, Erdogan ordered a nationwide lockdown for most of May to curb the pandemic. Most visitors are now exempt from taking PCR tests to detect the virus, and the government’s “safe tourism” program has prioritized vaccination of tourism workers and certified 10,000 hotels and other operators that adhere to strict hygiene standards. Daily reported cases of Covid-19 have fallen to around 6,000, from a record 63,000 in April.
Boasting 5,000 miles of shoreline and dotted with Greek and Roman ruins, Turkey was the sixth most visited destination in the world before the coronavirus outbreak, attracting 52 million tourists and $ 35 billion in revenue in 2019. While the pandemic decimated global tourism last year, Turkey’s visitor numbers and income plunged almost 70% in 2020 from the previous year.
The tourism ministry had targeted 30 million tourists and $ 23 billion in revenue in 2021, but that could already be getting out of reach, with a third fewer tourists arriving in the first four months than in the same period l last year.
“The pandemic has caused a shift in numbers [but] tourism retains its prominent place in Turkey’s balance of payments and provides 2 million jobs, ”Minister of Tourism Mehmet Nuri Ersoy told FT.
Tourism, both directly and indirectly, accounted for 13% of GDP before the pandemic. Without a significant rebound this year, economic growth could be reduced by up to a percentage point in 2021, said Roger Kelly, economist at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development in Istanbul.
Income from tourism is also reducing Turkey’s trade deficit and supporting the pound, which has lost 14% of its value this year as concerns grew that Erdogan’s pressure on the central bank to cut interest rates. fueled double-digit inflation.
“Life in Turkey would be so much easier if tourism resumed. If not, it means another year of economic hardship, ”Kelly said. “It’s not a magic wand, but it would ease the pressure on the Turkish economy a lot.”
In Marmaris, nine out of 10 hotels remained closed at the end of May, Deliveli said. Most survived the 2020 meltdown on loans or cost cuts, but “now is the time to pay, and if things go like last year, many operators will go bankrupt or be forced into business. to sell, ”he said.
Around 2.6 million Britons traveled to Turkey in 2019 and typically made up around half of Deliveli’s guests. He hasn’t booked a single booking from Britain this season, as the UK government has demanded that arrivals from the country stay in a quarantine hotel and take a PCR test at their own expense. Erdogan said he and Johnson would discuss tourism at a NATO summit next week and he also sent Ersoy to Moscow and Berlin to push for an end to their restrictions.
Germany, which sent 5 million tourists to Turkey in 2019, said returnees no longer needed to self-quarantine if they were vaccinated or tested negative. Russia, the biggest source of tourists to Turkey, has extended the ban on most flights between the two countries until June 21. “Once air traffic resumes, Turkey will be in a hurry as customers do not cancel reservations but postpone them,” Ersoy said.
But Bahattin Yucel, former tourism minister, said it was already too late for this season “to be better than last year, and we must attribute it to the lack of success in managing the coronavirus”.
On a recent afternoon, a handful of tourists walked through the sprawling ruins of Perge, a 3,000-year-old archaeological site once ruled by Alexander the Great and adorned with stunning mosaics.
Ali Cikla has walked the ancient paths of Perge “thousands of times” during his four decades as a tour guide. Since the pandemic hit, he has led just five groups and his income has dropped 90%. Still, he’s convinced that Turkey’s mix of sun, sea and history will prove to be irresistible.
“It may take a few years, but people will come back,” he said. “The pandemic will not last forever, but Perge will. ”