Will Turkey become like Iran for Israelis tourists?
By MARK FELDMAN
It heated up when Al Jazeera showed up in my office. Based in Dubai, the far sprung cable network decided in the vein of fairness to send a team with its crack reporter to interview Israelis to gauge their response to the widening crisis with Turkey.Claiming to be from the Britain-based Sky network, they had beseeched my staff with a heartfelt plea if they could pitch up in my office and film their spot.It took all of 30 seconds for us to realize that while their clipped English was quite impressive, there had been some misrepresentation.Still, if the government had given them visas, far be it from me to deny them their opportunity. First to enter my inner sanctum, the hard-nosed producer declared emphatically that without some visual background of Turkey, they could not film in my office. Happy to oblige, I brought them our framed photo of Turkey, a recent present from Turkish Airlines. Visibly relieved she asked if I could hang it in my office.Joyfully I told her that its present location near our rest rooms suited our mood perfectly.More decorations were needed though. Eyeing the collection of model airplanes that pepper my bookshelf, she sheepishly asked if I could place the model of the TWA plane on my desk throughout the interview. Unable to stifle my laughter, I told her that her choice of an airline on which Arab terrorists had perpetrated atrocities in the past would create a lovely subconscious atmosphere for our interview.In walked my interviewer – a youngish Palestinian woman who effortlessly asked me some background questions before beginning our interview. The gist of our talk was business of course. Politics was rarely mentioned. With flights to all of the Turkish resorts suspended and the only air link between the two countries consisting of Turkish Airlines flights to Istanbul, she seemed taken aback when I loudly opined, “Turkey is dead.”Understand that for more than a dozen years, the number one leisure destination for Israelis has been Turkey. Beautiful resorts throughout the country have seduced Israelis.First class resorts, water sports and activities galore, all inclusive packages, reasonable prices – Israelis took to it all like manna from heaven. It’s over.We may be a stiff-necked people but we’re not stupid. When the leader of Turkey calls us war criminals, associates us with al-Qaida and threatens to steam into Gaza leading his own flotilla, we say enough. Remember the background – for the last two years, Turkish politicians have accused Israel of a myriad of offenses. The flow of tourists to Turkey has ebbed and flowed in direct response to the bile that emanated from the mouths of its leaders.Just three months ago, an impressive delegation came from Turkey. Complete with hotel owners, tour operators and representatives of the Ministry of Tourism, they pleaded with us to ignore their political leaders and return to Turkey. We were told that the Turkish people loved Israelis, that they valued our small contribution to their industry. So we listened and began promoting packages to the Turkish Riviera once more. Cheaper than packages to most of Greece, the Turkish resorts began seeing large bookings. Passengers returned in droves to flying Turkish Airlines, no longer concerned about transiting through Istanbul airport to connect with flights to London, New York or Johannesburg. This too has changed.Recent announcements by Turkish Airlines report a drop of 50 percent in passengers.Keep in mind that in the past, clients elected to fly with Turkish Airlines, feeling confident in both their security and excellent service with the added bonus of inexpensive fares. Today consumers are voting with their feet and flying alternative airlines.Nonplussed by my opinion, the Al Jazeera correspondent pointedly asked how we would handle the economic loss. Her naïve question highlighted the issue in a nutshell.Israelis weren’t cancelling their trips abroad, only their trips to Turkey. Quickly taking advantage of the void in the market, wholesalers whipped up their promotions to nearby destinations. Cyprus, Greece, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic are just a few of the places that Israelis are travelling to.The Greek islands of Rhodes and Crete in particular will now attract a larger influx of Israeli tourists. Taking a break the producer offered her two cents. Pointing out that there are almost 1.5 billion Muslims and only 12 million Jews, she asked how I could be surprised that Turkey was moving closer to the Islamic world and leaving the West behind. Sadly I had no witty retort.Israeli travel professionals question how long this boycott of Turkey will remain.Israelis have short memories and few places close by present all that the Turkish resorts proffer, so the overriding feeling is that they will vote with their wallet. I’m less certain.I’ve been to Turkey numerous times; the people are quite warm and their leisure facilities are truly some of the best I’ve stayed at. With value for money, it’s no mystery why hundreds of thousands of Israelis elected to spend their holiday money in Turkey.Still, older professionals in my field regale me with stories of how airlines used to fly from Tel Aviv to Teheran, how the Iranians welcomed Israelis with open arms. Will the near future leave Turkey in this category? My hunch is that until its political leaders learn to remain mute, the only sound from Israelis will be that of silence.
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