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Bird flu, cartoons take toll on Turkey tourism

Fewer tourists are flocking to Turkey this winter season, scared off by an outbreak of the deadly bird-flu virus and the violent protests by Muslims over publication in Europe of the Prophet Mohammad cartoons, tourism operators and officials say. The number of foreigners visiting Turkey last month fell 4.7 percent to 667,000, compared with January 2005, according to government figures.

Even more disappointing, reservations for the summer season are down, according to hotel representatives and travel agents interviewed at a tourism conference in Istanbul on Friday.

Reservations have fallen "by 25 to 30 percent compared with last season," said Fusan Kayan, sales manager at the luxury hotel chain Marti, which is based in Marmaris in the west and Antalya in the south.

"The season has gotten off to a bad start," said Yusuf Istanbullu, manager of the Orient Palace in Alanya in southern Turkey, reporting a 10-percent drop in reservations.

He blamed the decline on the recent tensions in Turkey with tens of thousands of Muslims protesting against the Mohammad cartoons first published in a Danish newspaper. Before that in January, four people died after coming in contact with birds infected with the highly pathogenic H5NI strain of avian flu in eastern Turkey.

Tourism is a vital sector of the Turkish economy, representing 5.5 percent of the country's gross domestic product. The tourist industry brought in $18.15 billion in 2005.

The Turkish of tourism and culture minister, Attila Koc, admitted that the goal of 26 million tourists in 2006, up from 20.5 million last year, may be out of reach.

"It's a risky goal, I know, but there has been some exaggeration concerning bird flu in our media, and tour operators have been able to book hotels in Turkey at half price," Koc said.

The minister said that the spread of bird flu throughout Europe may lessen the negative consequences of the disease in Turkey, where there have not been any more cases of the virus in humans since mid-January. Koc said he was counting on a revival of foreign visitors from the West and other regions such as Iran, Russia, Israel and China.

The minister also launched a campaign Friday to encourage Turks to spend their vacations in their homeland. Despite the decline in demand from the European market, Koc said that did not mean tourists would stay away from Turkey, noting that last-minute reservations could make up for the lag.

"But there will be a drop in receipts per capita," he added.

That view was shared by Emre Kunda, manager of the Tusan Beach Resort in Kusadasi in western Turkey. He said reservations were down between 20 and 30 percent from the Netherlands, Great Britain, and France where early booking is a common practice. But he added that the damage was being contained by last-minute reservations, which come with special reductions in price.

"We're going to extend our 15-percent reductions, normally reserved for early booking, until April or May," Kunda said.

Beirut,02 28 2006
Redaction
The Daily Star
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