With a new wave of anti-Israel sentiment in Turkey, and a furious response in Israel, the once-booming tourism trade between the countries is already feeling the effects.
"I can't sell a Turkish Air ticket going via Istanbul," Mark Feldman, CEO of Zion Tours, told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday. Istanbul is a common stop-over point on the way to many other destinations.
"Nobody, but nobody, wishes to fly there... packages are very cheap, the airline is a good airline... [but] people are voting with their feet," Feldman said.
Relations with Turkey have recently been strained, due to Turkey's withdrawal from an international military exercise involving Israel, a series of verbal assaults from Turkish leaders, and the premiere of a new television series portraying IDF soldiers as murderers. The first episode of the series aired in Turkey on Tuesday evening and depicted IDF soldiers in the West Bank killing a baby and a young girl, and lining up Palestinians to be shot before a firing squad.
According to Feldman, "This [tourism decline] is getting intensified, and the television series will accelerate it. I expect this [Israeli tourist] boycott and this anger to last throughout the fall and winter."
Turkey is generally the second most popular destination for Israeli tourists, ranking only after the United States. More than half a million Israelis visited Turkey last year. Tourists from Israel ranked 10th in the number of entries to Turkey and made up 2.49 percent of all tourists to the country, Ynet reported in 2008.
Its proximity, luxury resorts, cultural and historical attractions, and the number of affordable trips available make Turkey an appealing destination for Israelis.
Israel and Turkey have, until recently, enjoyed close relations, and strong military and economic ties, but these have recently been deteriorating.
Tourism from Israel to Turkey took a sharp drop at beginning of 2009, due to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's vocal objections to Operation Cast Lead. According to Time magazine's Web site, tourism has dropped 47% since the beginning of this year, compared to the same period last year. Exports to Turkey have dropped by 40% in that time.
Feldman said that his agency usually sends about 10,000 tourists a year to Turkey, but Erdogan's statements had a negative impact. "People are still seething after those comments," he said. "Tourism went down over 30%."
Tourism to Turkey had begun to make a comeback, he said. "People were starting to go back to Turkey, and flying Turkish Air, over the summer. People forget, people forgive, and people remember Turkey has good bargains."
The renewed tension this week seems to be reversing that trend. "People who had reservations on Turkish Air told us to cancel them," Feldman told the Post. "We had a family of eight that called me yesterday and told us to cancel."
Feldman said he was also concerned that recent developments posed potential safety risks for his clients.
"I'm very close to telling my office not to sell it [tours to Turkey] at all... [I ask myself], is it safe to fly? Would I recommend going to Istanbul?... Should I let my clients go?"
Israeli and Turkish tourism officials could not be reached for comment.
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