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Turkish tourism industry waits to see effects of bird flu

Turkey's tourism industry, which generates more than 20 million visitors and 15 billion euros ($18 billion ) a year, is waiting anxiously to see whether the outbreak of bird flu that has killed at least four Turks since the beginning of the year will also scare visitors away. Greece Monday joined Russia and Britain in warning its citizens to take their holidays elsewhere.

"If the problems continue, well, yes, there will be serious consequences for the sector," acknowledged Timur Bayindir, president of the Turkish Union of Hotels, although he said he was confident Turkish authorities would contain the virus.

So far, there are few signs that visitors are staying away, but that could simply be because the season has not really started yet, Bayindir conjectured. "The hotels are more or less empty in any case this time of year," he said.

Germany, which accounts for 20 percent of tourism to Turkey with 2.35 million visitors in 2005, has not cautioned against travel to the country.

But a spokesman for Europe's biggest travel operator, Germany's TUI, said Monday said the bird flu outbreak was beginning to discourage travelers.

"Since the middle of last week, we have noticed that people are hesitant to book flights to Turkey," the spokesman said. "We will have to wait at least a few days to see if this trend lasts," he added. About a million sightseers and sun seekers came last year from Russia and more than 900,000 from Britain, according to Tourism Ministry statistics.

Some tourist boosters are resolutely optimistic that business will continue as usual.

"There is no reason to worry, the situation in Turkey is absolutely not such as to affect tourism," said Basaran Ulusoy, president of the Turkish Union of Travel Agents.

But such resolute optimism could easily crumble if the number of cases of human infection continues to climb. Health officials confirmed a fourth death from bird flu death Monday. Another 16 persons are now confirmed to be sick with the deadly H5N1 virus.

Most of the cases thus far have occurred in the sparsely tourist areas and remote region of eastern Anatolia, which only attracted 2.7 percent of tourists in the first six months of 2005, the most recent statistics available.

But the bird variant of the disease has also struck some of the most popular tourism spots, especially the commercial capital Istanbul and the Aegean coast.

"For the moment, we have not had any cancelations, not even any requests for additional information from travel agents we work with," said Richard Ozatacan, head of Turquoise Tours, which operates in Kusadasi and Bodrum on the Aegean coast.

"If we get up to 500 deaths or 50,000 people infected, then people will start to reconsider their vacation plans," he said. "It is the same everywhere in the world - if you are afraid, you don't want to leave home." In the area around Saint Sophia Church, the nerve center of tourism in Istanbul, hotel managers all sounded the same notes of optimism and concern.

"We have not had a single cancelation because of the bird flu," said Onur Bayrak of the Yesil Ev Hotel. "The only problem created by the disease for us is that clients are asking for discounts."

Likewise, in Antalya on the Mediterranean, a region that accounts for nearly 40 percent of all tourism to Turkey. "Travel agencies have told their clients that, according to the World Health Organization and Germany, there is no crisis situation in Turkey," said Gulnur Atmaca, sales director at the Renaissance Antalya Resort.

Beirut,01 23 2006
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