Bodrum, Turkey—The Russians are finally coming but the mayor of this empty Turkish resort doubts their converted rubles will save what looks to be another lost summer.
“We closed the last tourism season down 75 percent,” Bodrum mayor Ahmet Aras told AFP in a lavish library overlooking the Aegean Sea.
“We expect a recovery from July with the start of flights from Russia and Europe,” but for the sector overall, “that will not happen for a few more years,” he said.
Pandemic curbs on travel wrecked Turkey’s economy by depriving it of foreign revenue to finance debt and support the lira.
The lack of tourists played a large part in the lira’s slide from six to the dollar in March 2020 to around 8.7 now.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government needed an urgent fix therefore to quell public discontent.
He tried to coax tourists to Turkish beaches with exemptions from weekend curfews and other coronavirus rules.
But quarantines placed on travelers returning from Turkey laid the government’s plans to waste.
In 2019, Bodrum airport welcomed a record 4.34 million tourists to a city dubbed the “Turkish Saint-Tropez.”
Traffic slumped by two-thirds last year however, and the airport recorded just 350,000 arrivals between January and May.
Things are finally looking up, and Turkish leaders have their fingers crossed.
“God willing, we will jump-start tourism and have a tourist push,” Erdogan said this month.
Russia this week lifted a Turkish travel ban that was officially imposed because of the coronavirus but which coincided with a spike in geopolitical tensions.
And more people are expected once EU travel rules ease on July 1.
But the scenic city that stretches from the sea to rolling hills bears little resemblance to the playground of jet-setters and moneyed Istanbulites of the past.
“You see all the boats resting on the shore, maybe one of them goes on tour a day,” guide organizer Baris Kasal lamented.
“We said the last season was ‘dead’. We are calling this one ‘the walking dead’,” he quipped.
“There’s been a little bit of movement but it’s very, very weak.”
Russians make up the largest share of tourists because Turkey is one of the main holiday destinations they can reach without a visa.
Bodrum airport operations manager Iclal Kayaoglu said it was handling just a tenth of the passengers it did in 2019.
“It’s primarily the Russians and British who visit,” she told AFP.
‘Like a joke’
Russians found a way to sneak in even when travel was banned by the Kremlin.
The number of arrivals from Poland spiked after they opted for a circuitous route.
Yet shop owners say the business these holiday-makers drum up barely covers the debts and state loans they took on to survive last summer.
“Last year was like a joke, but we thought it was just that one time, and that we would get over it,” said leather shop owner Engin Erkan.
“But we are on our second year now. We are not strong enough to keep standing.”
Bodrum Chamber of Commerce board chairman Mahmut Serdar Kocadon said he did not expect tourism levels to return to pre-pandemic levels for at least two more years.
Local business revenues were down 80 percent from their highs in 2019, he said.
“We’ve reached a point where businesses are standing on the brink of bankruptcy,” Kocadon told AFP.
‘Europe is closed’
In 2019, Turkey hosted 45 million tourists.
The tourism minister lowered the target to 30 million after the country entered a full lockdown in late April to save its summer season, but few now think that goal will be reached.
The tourists who are here—many of them Ukrainians and other eastern Europeans—are delighted to have the sun to themselves.
“We didn’t travel last year, but this year we decided to go to the seaside,” said Ukrainian Michael Grunnyi while holidaying with his wife and daughter.
“For Ukraine, Europe is now closed. Turkey is perfect because of the COVID situation.”
But the mayor of Bodrum sounded frustrated.
“You cannot just open in July and expect to recover,” Aras said. “It does not work that way.”