Turkey's lonely tourist attractions face make-or-break week
By Ceyda Caglayan, Jonathan Spicer and Kaan Soyturk
ISTANBUL / ANTALYA (Reuters) - The Turkish Mediterranean coasts and historical sights are facing a critical week as the government is pushing to open borders and save at least part of a tourist season that has been hit by the coronavirus pandemic.
With beaches largely empty and many hotels deciding whether to open, tourism minister Mehmet Ersoy told Reuters he hoped the world's sixth largest travel destination could attract up to half of the 45 million arrivals last year.
But a lot depends on conversations to start flights from Russia, Germany, and the UK - also affected by the virus - that should lead to some conclusions early next week, he said.
There is a lot at stake for Turkey, where a recovery in COVID-19 cases this month has raised concerns in a country where tourism accounts for up to 12% of the economy. Foreign arrivals decreased by two thirds in the first five months of the year.
To convince foreigners and their governments that travel is safe, Ankara has launched a "healthy tourism" program that includes health and hygiene controls. More than 600 hotels have applied for certification. It works for around 70 countries with a focus on the European Union.
However, the flights are only beginning, also from the USA. In the Mediterranean center of Antalya, the historic city center was practically empty at the weekend and very few foreign tourists were seen in hotels.
Such hotels "cannot only survive with Turkish tourists," Ersoy said in an interview on Friday. "The next 10 days will be crucial as decisions are made at the borders. So far it is not clear how international traffic will begin."
When asked if tourism would stop if foreigners triggered new outbreaks, he said "we need to pay attention to the numbers" and decisions would be made by a separate scientific committee.
Turkey hopes that the main tourist source Russia - with the third highest coronavirus cases in the world https://graphics.reuters.com/CHINA-HEALTH-MAP/0100B59S39E/index.html - will start flights in mid-July. The second-placed Germany has a Coronavirus travel warning until the end of August, but could cancel it earlier.
Since the block was lifted this month, the new official cases https://tmsnrt.rs/3e9GWu3 have doubled before around 1,200 were settled per day. President Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey has lost some ground.
Around $ 35 billion in tourism revenue helped make Turkey's current account briefly positive last year. In April, the deficit was $ 5 billion as earnings disappeared and empty hotel rooms would increase the deficit this summer.
Growing external imbalance will put more pressure on the Turkish lira, which hit a record low last month, and could raise concerns about Turkey's reduced foreign exchange reserves.
"Tourism is probably the sector that will go through the longest recession," and its seasonal workers are facing "a very bad time," said Seyfettin Gursel, an economist at Bahcesehir University in Istanbul.
Ankara decided to end government funding, which partially covered the loss of wages for formal employees, including some in tourism. Workers and a union said some hotels had started training on hygiene and social distance, although many had held back the attitude.
Okan Osman from Frankfurt was one of the few tourists who came to Antalya. He said this was "much better and cleaner" than in previous years. "Of course it is difficult for everyone and the employees, but they seem to be well trained and everyone is really well prepared."
(Additional reporting by Ezgi Erkoyun and Ali Kucukgocmen in Istanbul; letter from Jonathan Spicer; editing by Giles Elgood)
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