erdogan speaks to crowd 248.88.
(photo credit: AP)
For many years, Turkey has been the most popular tourist destination for Israelis. Turkish resorts from Antalya to Bodrum have offered us first-class service at reasonable rates.
At first, it was the casinos that attracted the tourists. Then, when the Muslim government closed them down, the resorts reinvented themselves.
Luxury locations sprang up like mushrooms after the rain. Some resorts stayed traditional, while others became quite exotic, with one modeling itself on the Kremlin and another taking the Titanic as its vision. All exist to spoil tourists with their all-inclusive packages.
A two-hour flight takes you to Istanbul. The charms of Istanbul, coupled with an exotic environment, has had Turkish Airlines and a multitude of Turkish charters flying more passengers to Turkey than any other foreign airline.
Although Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has since toned down his remarks, saying they were against the government and not the people of Israel, his repeated criticism of Israel during the recent war against Hamas has led to a severe downturn in Israelis flying to Turkey.
Erdogan called Operation Cast Lead "a crime against humanity," deploring what he saw as excessive force and suggesting that Israel be barred from the United Nations.
He accused Israel of "perpetrating inhuman actions which would bring it to self-destruction," adding that "Allah will sooner or later punish those who transgress the rights of innocents."
There have been boycotts from the Israeli consumer in the past, but never on this level. The anger is both deep and palpable. Across the country, travel agents report, Israelis are voting with their feet and avoiding travel to Turkey.
Wholesalers report a 70 percent drop in flight bookings, and reservations to the resorts have all but disappeared.
Turkish Airlines has also been severely damaged. The national carrier of Turkey is known as an excellent airline with great security.
It prides itself on its expansive network with three daily flights to Istanbul that also take passengers to other international destinations.
Customers in the past have often flown Turkish Airlines to New York, Cape Town, all over Europe and the Far East. Turkish Airlines has been strident in keeping airfares very competitive and was used by clients seeking inexpensive prices to destinations beyond Istanbul. In fact, Turkish Airlines was quite proud of marketing itself with Istanbul as a hub for close to 100 cities to which it flies outside of Turkey.
Travel Agency executives report that clients are willing to pay more and fly another airline rather than transit Istanbul Airport. They view Turkish Airlines as a symbol of the Turkish government.
There have been reports that Turkish consumer groups are calling for a boycott on Israeli products. This would obviously damage Israel's business interests and put companies at risk. Trade between Israel and Turkey in 2008 was close to $3 billion.
Over 500,000 Israelis chose to travel to Turkey in 2008. Dropping millions of hard-earned dollars and shekels, they thought the Turkish people were appreciating them. Officials from the Turkish Ministry of Tourism make constant visits to Israel, promoting more and more sites, to encourage the Israeli travel agents to sell more Turkey.
We may be a thick-skinned people but when push comes to shove, Israeli consumers, along with their western counterparts, take such criticism and actions seriously. The results in the last few weeks have been surprising. It's gratifying to see that some principles remain sacrosanct and that the lure of an inexpensive trip is not inviolable.
Israeli travelers are electing to take off at the last minute for cities in Europe rather than patronize these resorts. With prices falling dramatically due to the fall in the price of oil, keeping airfares and packages at bargain basement levels, Israelis are choosing to go elsewhere.
Skiing in the mountains of Turkey is no longer an option. Israeli bloggers are doing their best to keep this issue in the forefront.
Keeping in mind that we're in the middle of the winter and the start of a recession, the question is how long will this anger last? Gauging the intensity of the people writing blogs leads me to believe that it could be a long hard winter.
When consumers feel so insulted and an Israeli basketball team is forced to forfeit a game in Ankara due to the unruly and threatening behavior of the crowd, memories remain vivid.
El Al stopped flying to Istanbul last year, citing security costs and the inability to make money on the route. Israeli charter companies have also curtailed their flight schedule. This means that until the Turkish government makes amends or warmer weather leads to cooler minds, Istanbul will revert back to Constantinople and be only a pleasant memory for that most demanding client - the Israeli traveler.
Mark Feldman is the CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem. For questions and comments email him at email@example.com