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Turkey Takes Steps To Reverse Tourism Slump Amid Political Upheaval


Tourism is vital to Turkey's economic health, and 2016 was a terrible year for it. Visits were down 30 percent, and they stayed down after a wave of terrorist attacks continued into this year.

As NPR's Peter Kenyon reports, Turkey is getting creative as it tries to turn things around. But it's an uphill climb.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Turkey knows it has an image problem. Western governments are strongly advising against traveling here. And the news is mostly about terror attacks or fears Turkey is sliding toward authoritarianism. To combat that, Turkey is fishing for visitors in unexpected ponds. The Twitter feed of the Turkish Embassy in Guatemala, for instance, features enticing beaches and Turkish cuisine.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Turkish).

KENYON: If you're wondering why a tourism ad to Guatemala is being sung in Turkish, that's because it's aimed not at Guatemalans but Turks living there. The message is, hey, come back - and not just to see their family but to spend money like tourists do on hotels, restaurants and entertainment. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently said Turks abroad should preserve at least a week of their vacation time for tourism in Turkey. And while they're at it, they should bring some friends along.


PRESIDENT RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN: (Through interpreter) To turn this crisis into an opportunity, we need new tools, new campaigns. This is the start of a take-your-neighbor-with-you campaign for Turkish citizens living abroad.

KENYON: Most Turks aren't seeing a turnaround. In the Three Star sweet shop in a once bustling commercial street, 83-year-old Feridun Dortler surveys his shop which has been here since the earliest days of the Turkish Republic. A giant picture of modern Turkey's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, dominates the back wall.

FERIDUN DORTLER: (Speaking Turkish).

KENYON: Dortler ticks off the crises he's lived through - 20th century coups, 21st century terror attacks. He's seen it all. And the past year is the worst he can remember. Business, he sighs, is dismal.


KENYON: In these grim times, Istanbul hosted a World Tourism summit last month. Former U.K. Foreign Secretary Jack Straw spoke to a mostly empty room about the trauma of terrorist violence and the shock of last summer's failed coup in Turkey. Out in the hall, Ralph Radtke with the Kempinski luxury hotel chain said this year he's emphasizing the security of the Kempinski Ciragan palace, a restored 19th century edifice that once housed Ottoman sultans and still caters to the rich and famous.

RALPH RADTKE: A lot of celebrities, a lot of government delegations - Ciragan was always the safest hotel in Istanbul. Still, it's a question of perception. Security's a question of perception. And actually it's also a question of press, you know?

KENYON: He cocks an eyebrow at the reporter asking him about security in Istanbul.

RADTKE: So if the press says, OK, this and this and this, this is an unsafe place, people don't want to travel.

KENYON: If it's any consolation, tourism isn't the only slumping part of the economy. The country's credit rating and currency are down. Investment capital is fleeing, and unemployment recently hit a seven-year high. Investment banker Yigit Dula says tourism could bring other sectors down, too.

YIGIT DULA: The tourism sector took a huge hit. And this not only affects the tourism sector, but you should keep in mind banks have a huge exposure in the tourism sector, right? And now it's a huge question whether it will have an effect on the overall banking system.

KENYON: On the brighter side, Russia has lifted its ban on holidays on Turkey's Aegean coast, and hotels report a big surge in bookings. Still, experts say it could take Turkey's tourism sector four years to recover. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.



Today we're also covering reaction to the GOP health care bill, and tomorrow on MORNING EDITION, we'll hear from Nebraska Republican Jeff Fortenberry, who got an earful from his constituents at a packed town hall this week.