Russia’s war on Ukraine looms over Turkish tourism industry

Turkey continues to welcome visitors despite tightened European Union rules for tourists from Russia.

 The Russian Navy's Black Sea Fleet 145th Rescue Ship Squad's Prut class rescue tug EPRON sails in the Bosphorus, on its way to the Black Sea, in Istanbul, Turkey  (photo credit: MURAD SEZER/REUTERS)
The Russian Navy's Black Sea Fleet 145th Rescue Ship Squad's Prut class rescue tug EPRON sails in the Bosphorus, on its way to the Black Sea, in Istanbul, Turkey
(photo credit: MURAD SEZER/REUTERS)

Russian visitors are giving Turkey’s key tourism sector a boost at a crucial time for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose popularity has taken a hit amid an economic crisis. But opposition politicians in Turkey say Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine is damaging the industry.

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Russia is the second largest source of tourists for Turkey, with nearly 2.2 million Russians visiting so far this year, according to Turkey’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism.

That is up from 1.5 million Russian tourists in 2021 when the industry was rebounding from the earlier period of the coronavirus pandemic.

However, Çetin Osman Budak, a Turkish lawmaker with the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) who represents the tourist hub of Antalya, said that while the number of Russian tourists is up for this year, they are still below pre-pandemic numbers.

 There are five weekly flights between Istanbul and Kigali, and the average flight is six and a half hours. Starting March 27, there will be 56 weekly flights between Tel Aviv and Istanbul Airport.  (credit: TURKISH AIRLINES ) There are five weekly flights between Istanbul and Kigali, and the average flight is six and a half hours. Starting March 27, there will be 56 weekly flights between Tel Aviv and Istanbul Airport. (credit: TURKISH AIRLINES )

“Before Russia's attack on Ukraine, the tourism industry was very hopeful for these two markets, but the war spoiled those plans,” Budak told The Media Line. “If there had been no war, a much higher number of Russian tourists would have visited our country.”

Budak says that the number of visitors from Ukraine is down 66% in the first seven months of the year compared to the same period last year.

“Both Russian and Ukrainian tourists are extremely important for Turkish tourism. During the pandemic, especially while European countries took very serious closure measures, tourists from Russia and Ukraine prevented the sector from completely collapsing,” he said.

Top Ukrainian officials have urged countries to ban visitors from Russia.

Last month, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in an interview with the Washington Post that Russian visitors should be banned, and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba wrote in an op-ed in Politico that the European Union and G-7, both of which Turkey is not a member, should ban Russian tourists, businesspeople and students.

“And though the legal responsibility for the committed crimes is, indeed, individual, there is also a common social responsibility that all Russians should bear for the horrors that have been inflicted on Ukraine,” Kuleba wrote.

Last week, the EU said it would suspend the visa facilitation program that has made it easier for Russians to visit the bloc.

That could make it even more likely that Russians choose to spend their tourism dollars in Turkey, which has not closed its airspace to flights from Russia, unlike its Western allies.

The tourism sector plays a key role in Turkey’s economy.

In 2019, before the pandemic, travel and tourism accounted for 11% of Turkey’s gross domestic product, and nearly 2.3 million jobs, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council.

Russia has been a leading source of tourism to Turkey for years, amid Erdogan’s strengthening of relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, which analysts believe is driven by the Turkish president’s geopolitical ambition to decrease Ankara’s reliance on its Western allies.

The most controversial move has been Turkey’s purchase of a Russian missile defense system.

Aside from tourism, Russia also is an important source of energy and trade and, since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Ankara has strained to maintain ties with both countries.

Some of that is likely over security and domestic concerns, with Moscow leveraging significant influence in Syria where it backs Syrian President Bashar Assad and could help launch an attack that would push millions more refugees into Turkey.

Turkey has not put sanctions on Russia and, a month after the invasion of Ukraine, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said that Russian oligarchs could visit his country.

In August, AFP reported that a leading Turkish business association stated it had received a letter from the US government warning that Turkish firms may be sanctioned over their work with Russian businesses.

It is not just Russian tourists who are flocking to Turkey.

The country’s weakening lira, which lost 44% of its value last year, also has made it a more attractive tourist destination, with rising numbers of tourists from Germany, the UK and Bulgaria.

The numbers could improve Erdogan’s popularity, which has decreased due to the poor economy, and polls show him trailing several opposition leaders with less than a year to go before national elections.

“Turkish President Erdogan’s reelection platform has an element of opening up the economy strongly to provide a sense of relief so that citizens will forget the tough period they went through. Tourism is a really important part of it.”

Soner Cagaptay

Soner Cagaptay, a senior fellow with a focus on Turkey at the Washington Institute, said increasing tourism, investment and trade from Russia, as well as the Gulf, is crucial for Erdogan.

“Turkish President Erdogan’s reelection platform has an element of opening up the economy strongly to provide a sense of relief so that citizens will forget the tough period they went through,” Cagaptay told The Media Line.

“Tourism is a really important part of it,” he said.