ISTANBUL — The wildfires that scorched some of Turkey’s most popular destinations have fueled a nascent recovery due to the COVID-19 pandemic in the country’s tourism sector for more than a year.
Cities like Bodrum and Marmaris forced the mass evacuation of tourists and locals who flocked to the coastal areas to make happy beach scenes a nightmare.
On Tuesday, for the seventh day in a row, Turkish firefighters brought the fire under control due to unusually high summer temperatures and strong winds. The fire has been blamed for at least eight deaths and forced many residents, many of whom are farmers.
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Beyond the physical destruction, the economic impact is already costly.
“We are devastated,” said Hussein Aydin of Bordum Tours, a travel agency that books boating excursions in the Mediterranean. “All the routes of the boat tours have been canceled so far, and they will also be canceled next year because all the natural scenic spots on our tours are completely burnt out.”
Aydin told the VOA that his business would have to be moved to other tourism enterprises or risk closure altogether.
Elsewhere in the country, things look less dire.
In Istanbul, crowds of tourists can be seen strolling the streets after the Turkish government lifted almost all pandemic-related restrictions to boost economic activity and stimulate the country’s vital tourism sector.
“It has been a very positive experience,” said Tania Nel, a Qatar resident who has spent almost a month traveling to Turkey.
“It was a country I could easily enter, with only a PCR” [COVID test], and get visa online. I’ve always wanted to look at Turkey and with other countries shutting down, it seemed like a very obvious choice,” she told VOA. “Things being comparatively cheap here also meant I could stay longer and see a lot of areas in the country.”
Turkey sought to remain an international tourist destination throughout the pandemic, requiring only a negative COVID-19 test to enter the country and exempting foreigners from certain restrictions, such as curfews and travel limits within the country. . Nel said the ease of access attracted him to Turkey.
“I had originally planned to travel to South Africa in July to see my family, but they experienced a spike in cases and tighter restrictions, so decided to come to Turkey,” Nel said. , who is originally from Cape Town, South Africa.
Turkey’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism says foreigners arriving in June this year are barely top 2 million, less than half the total recorded in June 2019, which drew over 5 million foreign visitors.
This is especially difficult in Turkey, where tourism is a significant contributor to the national economy. NS Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation describes Turkey’s tourism economy as “one of Turkey’s most dynamic and fastest growing sectors”, accounting for more than two million jobs and more than 7% of total employment.
Reports of tourists receiving particularly warm greetings by cash-strapped hospitality workers.
“They welcomed all the tourists like royalty,” Nell said.
Low tourism levels have limited the economic stimulus usually expected during the summer. Many businesses continue to report further acute financial hardship.
“We are in difficult times financially at the moment,” said Turge Karhan, who owns two gift shops in an area of Istanbul often frequented by tourists.
The lack of customers forced Karahan to lay off employees and work longer hours for a fraction of the earnings before the pandemic.
“We are working more but we are earning less. Most of the money we make is spent on taxes and rent. So, as an employer I am in a very difficult position,” Karhan told VOA Told.
Many cafes, restaurants and bars in Istanbul and elsewhere have closed permanently since the pandemic first broke out.
Karhan spoke passionately about the hordes of tourists that packed into his gift shops.
“In the past, the Turks felt like foreigners on this street because there were so many international tourists. Before the pandemic, you would see tourists from England, Germany, France, Italy crowded the streets in the summer. Nowadays, not like that at all. is,” he said.
The financial pain is also felt by Kuze Yuसेehan, who owns a restaurant around the corner from Galata Tower, a top tourist attraction in Istanbul.
“For months we only worked for takeaways” [orders], but the business it brought was not sustainable. Because of that, we have a lot of problems meeting our needs and being profitable,” Yousehan told VOA, adding that many businesses have had to fend for themselves.
“Although the government in the media presented itself as helpful and generous to businesses in Turkey, we did not get any financial relief as an independent business,” Yushen said. “We are hopeful that COVID will pass and the world will soon return to normal.”
This report includes some information from Reuters.