ISTANBUL/ANTALYA (Reuters) - Turkey’s Mediterranean coasts and historic attractions face a critical week as the government presses to open borders and salvage at least part of a tourist season already battered 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 destination could attract up to half of last year’s 45 million arrivals.
But much depends on talks to begin flights from Russia, Germany and Britain - also hard hit by the virus - which should reach some conclusions by early next week, he said.
The stakes are high for Turkey, where a rebound this month in COVID-19 cases has raised concerns in a country where tourism accounts for up to 12% of the economy. Foreign arrivals fell by two thirds in the first five months of the year.
To convince foreigners and their governments that travel is safe, Ankara launched a “healthy tourism” programme including health and hygiene checks, and more than 600 hotels have applied for certification. It is lobbying some 70 countries with a focus on the European Union.
Yet flights are only beginning to trickle in, including from the United States. In the Mediterranean hub of Antalya at the weekend the historic town centre was virtually empty and very few foreign tourists were seen at hotels.
Such hotels “cannot survive with only Turkish tourists,” Ersoy said in a Friday interview. “The next 10 days will be critical as decisions are made on borders ... so far it’s not clear how international traffic will start.”
Asked whether tourism would be halted if foreigners sparked new outbreaks, he said “we have to watch the numbers” and decisions would be taken with a separate scientific committee.
Turkey hopes top tourist source Russia - which has the world's third-highest coronavirus cases here - will start flights in mid-July. Second-place Germany has a coronavirus travel warning until the end of August but could lift it sooner.
Since a lockdown was lifted this month, new official cases tmsnrt.rs/3e9GWu3 doubled before settling around 1,200 per day. President Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey lost some ground.
Some $35 billion in tourism revenues helped briefly turn Turkey’s current account positive last year. In April, the deficit was $5 billion as revenues disappeared and empty hotel rooms this summer would drive it higher.
A growing external imbalance will put more pressure on Turkey’s lira, which hit a record low last month, and could raise more concerns over Turkey’s diminished foreign currency reserves.
“Tourism is probably the sector which will go through the longest recession” and its seasonal workers face “a very bad period,” said Seyfettin Gursel, economist at Istanbul’s Bahcesehir University.
Ankara decided to halt state funding that partially covered lost wages of formal employees, including some in tourism. Workers and a union said some hotels have begun training on hygiene and social distancing even while many have held off hiring.
Okan Osman, from Frankfurt, was one of very few tourists to arrive in Antalya, which he said was “much better and cleaner” than years past. “Of course it’s difficult for everyone and for the staff, but they seem to have been well trained and everyone is really well prepared.”
Additional reporting by Ezgi Erkoyun and Ali Kucukgocmen in Istanbul; Writing by Jonathan Spicer; Editing by Giles Elgood