Jan. 14, 2020
The 2016 crisis that hit the Turkish tourism sector has pushed the government to diversify its tourism offerings and attract tourists seeking an enthralling array of art, culture, and cuisine.
With cultural connections to ancient Greek, Persian, Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires, an 8,000-km coastline, and over 450 blue-flag beaches, Turkey has always been on the top of every traveler's bucket list. The country's reputation as one of the top tourism destinations can be gauged from its tourism sector's phenomenal recovery after a major decline in 2016 spurred by security and political concerns.
According to the Turkish Statistical Institute, the number of foreign visitors entering Turkey plummeted from 41.62 million in 2015 to 31.36 million in 2016—a massive 25% drop. But due to the swift and successful implementation of security initiatives followed by a period of relative calm, the number rebounded to 38.6 million in 2017, with increased popularity among tourists from Asia, the Middle East, and Russia. More recent figures show the number has even surpassed pre-crisis levels. According to official statistics, Turkey welcomed over 45.6 million foreigners in 2018, up 18.1% YoY. This trend further strengthened in 2019, with the number of foreign tourists in 1H2019 rising 11.3% YoY. Although the currency crisis played an integral part in the recovery by making Turkey an increasingly attractive destination for budget travelers, what has really turned the tide is the government's new strategy for tourism promotion and development. It focuses on promoting sub-fields such as gastronomy, faith, sports, and health tourism, while targeting new markets such as China, India, Pakistan, and the Middle East.
Leading this new strategy is the Tourism Master Plan, which aims to attract 70 million tourists and generate USD70 billion in revenue by 2023. Many would say that's an uphill task, but those aware of Turkey's gastronomic, cultural, and religious diversity will disagree. Home to religious sites belonging to three of the world's largest religions, Turkey has been the cradle of numerous civilizations and cultures.
The list of ancient religious sites spread across Turkey seems to be never ending, but some of the most renowned ones are St. Pierre's Church, recognized as the world's first cathedral; the tomb of Rumi, the revered 13-century Sufi poet; the house of the Virgin Mary; the Ancient Synagogue of Sardis, dating back to the 3rd century AD; Süleymaniye Mosque, one of the most magnificent examples of classical Ottoman architecture; and the ancient cave towns in Cappadocia where the early Christians took refuge from Roman Persecution.
To help tourists visit as many sites as possible and get the most of their travel experience, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism is also working on digital initiatives such as Digital Faith Map and Faith Portal of Turkey. Initiatives like these will go a long way in helping the government realize the objectives set forth in the Tourism Master Plan.
Similar to faith tourism, gastronomy tourism has an equally significant part to play if Turkey is to attract 70 million tourists by 2023. Recent trends reveal tourists are now more interested than ever before in learning about local cuisines, translating into higher spending per capita. Targeting this sub-category is one of the primary objectives of the government.
In an interview with Daily Sabah, Minister of Culture and Tourism Mehmet Nuri Ersoy identified gastronomy as one of the ministry's priorities. Ersoy said Turkey wants to become “a center of attraction by revealing the richness of our gastronomy, especially for the high-income group." To that end, tourism boards of different provinces are working with local governments and gastronomic associations to promote and highlight the variety of local cuisine. For instance, the Association of Turkish Travel Agencies (TÜRSAB) is arranging exclusive promotional events in high-income countries to introduce unique dishes from cities such as Adana, Kayseri, Mardin, Trabzon, Şanlıurfa, Hatay, and Gaziantep.
Hatay and Gaziantep are two cities with long gastronomic histories that have proved their mettle on the global stage. The city councils of both cities have been organizing several gastronomy-themed festivals for years, including the Hatay Agriculture Fair, the Hatay Künefe Festival, the Gaziantep Pistachio Culture and Art Festival, and the Shira Festival. With food at the core of their cultural identities, both cities have earned their place in the gastronomy category of UNESCO's Creative Cities Network.
Food and religion in Turkey are synonymous with intercultural dialogue, festivity, and social cohesion. Moving forward, both forces will have to play a crucial part in positioning the tourism sector as the industry that will buttress the economy.