Arab tourists descend on Istanbul, despite regional dispute

Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city as well as its financial and cultural hub, has long been a popular tourist destination. But in recent years it has witnessed a surge in tourists from the Middle East and North Africa, a trend that has been slowed by regional political differences. 

More than 8.4 million tourists arrived in Istanbul in the first seven months of 2019, according to the tourism ministry. Some 736,000 Iraqis visited Turkey during the period, followed by 370,000 people from Saudi Arabia, 285,000 from Israel, and 257,000 from Jordan. 

The total number of tourists coming from Middle Eastern and West Asian countries increased by 16.3 percent in the first seven months of 2019, compared to the same period last year. This is in addition to the 30 percent increase in Arab tourists seen in 2018. 

Assala Dinari, a 26-year old from Jordan, said he liked Istanbul because Turkey was tolerant and because it offered historical quarters such as Sultanahmet as well as the sea.

Dinari was accompanied by Mariam, a Saudi national living in Greece. “Turkey is a Muslim country but everybody can wander around freely,” she said. “There is no death sentence. Polygamy is not legal.”

Turkey is also a favoured destination for people from North Africa. Some 161,000 people from Algeria, 137,000 from Libya, and 120,000 from Morocco visited Turkey in the first seven months of this year.  

Mohammed and his wife Amel are from Tunisia. Muhammed said it was his third visit to Istanbul, which he said fascinated him. Amel said she liked the cleanliness and hospitality.

The Turkish government in recent years has focused on making the country a destination for medical tourism. The number of foreigners coming to Turkey for medical treatments increased to almost 700,000 in 2017 from some 75,000 a decade ago. The number of medical tourists visiting Turkey is expected to reach 1 million this year. 

The country has many advantages for those from the Middle East seeking medical treatment, as it is close, cost efficient, and provides high quality services. Hair transplantation operations are highly popular among Arab tourists. 

Mohammed’s daughters were considering eyebrow transplants. “Arabs have two reasons to choose here for hair, beard and moustache transplantations,” he said. “First of all the prices are reasonable, and secondly the operations are generally successful.”

His wife saw another reason. “Arabs cannot easily get visas from European countries,” said Amel. “But it is easy to come here. That is also why many choose Istanbul.”

Ekrem Şahin is a partner at Hicaz Tourism, one of many agencies that works only with Arabs. Ekrem speaks Arabic as he is originally from Turkey’s southeastern province of Siirt, which is home to a mainly Kurdish and Arab population. He complained that the political problems between Turkey and the Gulf states had affected his business.

Turkey, ruled by the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) since 2002, saw strengthening financial and political ties with Gulf countries until 2017, when it sided with Qatar against a blockade placed on the country by other Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Relations between Turkey and Saudi Arabia further deteriorated after Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed inside the Saudi Istanbul consulate in October last year. 

According to the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, in the first seven months of 2019, the number of Saudi visitors to Turkey fell 17 percent compared to the previous year, while those from the UAE fell 11 percent. 

Saudi Arabia has launched a campaign to discourage its citizens from travelling to Turkey, warning Saudi investors away, promoting a hashtag to #BoycottTurkishTourism and reporting on abductions and theft faced by Saudis in Turkey. 

Şahin said Turkish travel agencies also had businesses in Gulf countries, and their activities had now been curbed, pointing out that Turkish butchers used to run many of the slaughterhouses that served pilgrims during the Hajj. Şahin said he had brought Turkish butchers to Saudi Arabia for 15 years. 

“Now they transferred those jobs to people from Egypt, Libya,” he said. “They gave them to countries that are politically close. They have not been making contracts with Turks for two years.”

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.