ANTALYA – At the Ananas Hotel on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast, the rooms were cleaned, the pool filled and the sun loungers distanced, as staff prepared to welcome back Russian tourists after nearly 20 months of pandemic-induced closure.
Hotels in Turkey’s popular Antalya region are ready to reopen after Moscow announced it was lifting flight restrictions to Turkey. Tourism representatives are hoping that their sector — a key component of the Turkish economy — can now recover some of its losses.
“We have been closed for about 20 months. We were quite pleased by the lifting of the flight restrictions by Russia,” said Murat Ozbalat, general manager of the Ananas Hotel in the resort town of Alanya. Russians make up about 80% of his guests, he said. “The additional gradual lifting of restrictions from Europe gives us hope for the remainder of the 2021 season.”
While many Turkish businesses suffered during the pandemic, tourism has been clobbered: In 2019, it brought in $34.5 billion and nearly 52 million visitors. In 2020, visitors dropped 69% and revenues fell to about $12 billion, according to the tourism ministry.
“We are talking about a ... sector that has been sitting idle for a year,” said Hamit Kuk of the Association of Turkish Travel Agencies. “There is a loss of more than $20 billion.”
Turkey relies on tourism revenues for its foreign currency needs, at a time when it's been hit by double-digit inflation and a sinking currency, exacerbated by the pandemic.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly said this year’s season is crucial.
“We will ensure that tourism professionals can utilize at least the second half of the 2021 season,” he said Saturday, inaugurating a hotel in Antalya. “We aim to get a much bigger share of the tourism cake” along with recouping losses.
German Renata Malzahn, vacationing in the Side resort, known for its ancient ruins overlooking the beach, said she was well aware Turkey needs visitors.
“I think the easing of travel restrictions to Turkey was well overdue,” she said after getting a traditional scrub and bath at her hotel’s Turkish hammam. “If you ease (travel) restrictions with regard to other countries ... you should not exclude Turkey, because the people here also urgently need visitors like us, otherwise the country collapses.”
A spring COVID-19 spike in Turkey, when daily infections hit a record high of 63,000, drew travel warnings. The U.K. and France put Turkey on their red lists requiring returning tourists to quarantine, and Russia suspended flights in April.
The fear of another missed season prompted the government to exclude tourists from what they called a “full lockdown” for Turks.
Tourism workers got priority in vaccinations and the tourism ministry shared a promotional video of mask-wearing staff that said “Enjoy, I’m vaccinated.” The video was taken down after a public outcry on social media, with some people saying it presented Turks as subservient to foreign visitors.
With daily infections down to a 7-day average of 5,645, some countries reassessed their travel warnings this month. France and Germany have removed Turkey from the high-risk list and on Tuesday Russia resumed flights — with Turkish TV stations providing live coverage of the first Russians landing.
The industry is hoping that Britain, Turkey's third-largest tourism market, will also remove the country from its red list.
Turkey’s civil aviation updated its requirements on June 21, saying a negative PCR test within 72 hours of arrival would be required for travelers who have not been fully vaccinated or cannot show proof of recovery from COVID-19.
Jens Brauer, another German tourist, said he feels safe in Turkey. “They are doing a lot (in terms of safety measures) in the hotel, notably keeping safe distances, wearing masks," he said.
But Turkey’s push for foreign tourists could engender risks for the local population. Though hospitalizations and deaths have decreased and vaccinations have gained momentum, only 17% of the population has been fully vaccinated. Tourists from countries where a more contagious variant is spreading could affect Turkey. In Russia, daily infections have soared and vaccination numbers are low.
Zeynep Bilginsoy reported from Istanbul. Robert Badendieck in Istanbul and Suzan Fraser in Ankara, contributed.