The Russians are finally arriving, but the mayor of this empty Turkish resort town doubts their converted rubles will save what appears to be another lost summer.
“We closed the last tourist season down 75%,” 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 as a whole, “this will not happen for a few years,” he said. he declares.
Pandemic travel restrictions have destroyed the Turkish economy by depriving it of foreign income to finance debt and support the lira.
The lack of tourists played a big role in the fall of the lira from six to the dollar in March 2020 to around 8.7 today.
The government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan therefore needed an urgent solution to allay public discontent.
He has tried to coax tourists to Turkish beaches with exemptions from weekend curfews and other coronavirus rules.
But the quarantines imposed on travelers returning from Turkey have spoiled the government’s plans.
In 2019, Bodrum Airport welcomed a record 4.34 million tourists to a city dubbed the “Turkish Saint-Tropez”.
However, traffic fell by two-thirds last year and the airport recorded just 350,000 arrivals between January and May.
Things are finally improving and Turkish leaders are keeping their fingers crossed.
â€œGod willing, we are going to revive tourism and have a tourism push,â€ Erdogan said this month.
– ‘Walking Dead’ –
Russia this week lifted a travel ban on Turkey which was officially imposed due to the coronavirus but which coincided with rising geopolitical tensions.
And more people are expected once EU travel rules are relaxed on July 1.
But the quaint town stretching from the sea to rolling hills bears little resemblance to the playground of the jet-setters and wealthy Istanbul of the past.
“You see all the boats resting on the shore, maybe one of them goes on a tour one day,” lamented guide organizer Baris Kasal.
â€œWe said last season was ‘dead’. We call this one ‘the living dead’,â€ he joked.
“There has been a bit of movement but it’s very, very weak.”
Russians make up the largest share of tourists as Turkey is one of the top vacation destinations they can reach without a visa.
Bodrum Airport Operations Manager Iclal Kayaoglu said he only handled a tenth of the passengers he handled in 2019.
“It is mainly the Russians and the British who visit,” she told AFP.
– “Like a joke” –
The Russians found a way to squeeze in even when travel was banned by the Kremlin.
The number of arrivals from Poland increased after opting for a roundabout route.
Still, store owners say the business these vacationers create barely covers the debts and government loans they took out to survive last summer.
â€œLast year was like a joke, but we thought it was only once and we would get over it,â€ said leather goods owner Engin Erkan.
“But we’re in our second year now. We’re not strong enough to stand.”
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 years.
Revenues of local businesses are down 80% from their 2019 highs, he said.
“We have reached a point where companies are on the verge of bankruptcy,” Kocadon told AFP.
– “Europe is closed” –
In 2019, Turkey welcomed 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 believe that target will be met.
The tourists who are here – many of them Ukrainians and other Eastern Europeans – are delighted to have the sunshine to themselves.
â€œWe didn’t travel last year, but this year we decided to go to the seaside,â€ Ukrainian Michael Grunnyi said while on vacation with his wife and daughter.
“For Ukraine, Europe is now closed. Turkey is perfect because of the Covid situation.”
But the mayor of Bodrum seemed frustrated.
â€œYou can’t just open in July and expect to recover,â€ Aras said. “It doesn’t work that way.”