Turkey is getting ready for an unprecedented invasion of about 7mn Russian tourists this summer in the wake of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s re-election as president.
Russian President Vladimir Putin was one of the first international leaders to congratulate his “dear friend” Erdogan on his victory last week. Russian tourists, draft dodgers and billionaire oligarchs trying to circumvent sanctions have poured into the country since their options for travel became severely limited due to the war in Ukraine.
Relations between Moscow and Ankara are at their warmest in years but a loss by Erdogan to his challenger Kemal Kilicdaroglu, head of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), could have been calamitous for trade and tourism between the two countries. Kilicdaroglu accused Russia of spreading conspiracies and deep fakes ahead of this first round of elections.
Oxana, a tour rep from St Petersburg, said Erdogan’s victory has calmed the nerves of many of her colleagues, who are now nearly completely dependent on the Turkish market.
Sipping a Tequila Sunrise cocktail at the 5-Star Seven Seas Starlight Elite Hotel on the Icarian coast, Oxana recalled the ban on Russians travelling to Turkish resorts in 2015 after the shooting down of a Russian air force jet by Turkey’s military.
“Politics can play havoc with the tourism industry in our neck of the woods as we well remember in 2015, when one of our pilots was shot down and killed,” said Oxana, 43, who took a deep sip of her drink while feasting on hazy views of the Taurus mountains.
The Kremlin reacted with fury when a Turkish F-16 fighter shot down a Russian Su-24 bomber on the Syria-Turkey border in November 2015. Moscow banned the import of Turkish fruit and vegetables, construction projects with Turkish firms as well as the sale of charter flights in measures which were estimated to have cost Ankara $10bn.
Oxana was part of a crew of 32 reps from Russia, who were running the slide rule over the hotel – regarded as the best on Turkey’s Icarian sea – for the summer season.
“We were just getting over Covid when the special military operation in Ukraine kicked off," added Oxana. "That has forced us to orientate fully [to] Turkey for package holidays."
Turkey is one of the world’s largest consumers of Russian energy, while its vital tourism sector has become increasingly reliant on Russian holidaymakers. The war in Ukraine has largely unaffected Turkey’s tourism sector because the Erdogan government did not impose any sanctions on Russia.
The EU has imposed restrictions on Russians travelling to Europe following the invasion of Ukraine, with some countries – notably Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Finland, Poland and the Czech Republic – imposing an outright ban. Meanwhile, neighbouring Greece and Cyprus are reeling from a lack of Russian tourists, who historically would have represented a large percentage of overall visitors until sanctions were introduced.
Local Turkish officials are now hoping for a bumper season after a horrific earthquake on February 6 claimed the lives of more than 50,000 people and led to many hotels along the fabled Aegean coast hosting displaced survivors for months.
“It’s been quiet so far, with occupancy at about 30-40%, but we are hoping for an explosion of Russian tourists,” said Ensar, who works as head of guest relations at a top 5-star hotel in Bodrum. “Russians don’t come here until the beginning of June because of the sea temperature isn’t warm enough for them. Most of them would have gone to Antalya for their May holidays.”
An estimated 7mn Russians are expected to visit Turkey this year, up from 5.5mn in 2022 as more flights are planned between the two countries. Antalya has long been a favourite destination for Russians, with at least 2mn choosing to holiday on the south-west Anatolian coast per annum.
Russian tourists cite the lack of a need for a visa and the fact that the Turkish government allows them to access their funds through the payment system MIR as key reasons for choosing Turkey. Many of the resorts are all-inclusive and boost native Russian-speaking staff to cater for any whim.
As Russians can no longer fly directly to the EU, the Turkish capital Istanbul has also emerged as a key layover for holidaymakers and business travellers en route to Europe.
On April 29, it was announced that Russia and Turkey had agreed to increase the number of flights to more than 1,300 weekly, as Turkey has become the main destination for Russian tourists since the start of the war in Ukraine.
Dmitriy Gorin, vice-president of the Union of the Russian Tourism Industry, expects there will be 171 daily flights to Turkey during the summer.
“There will be 1,150-1,200 flights per week, 750 of which will be made by Russian airline companies and 400 by Turkish carriers,” Gorin told Russia's travel press.
In the summer season of 2022, both Russian and Turkish airline companies made a total of 750 to 850 flights per week. This is about a 30-40% increase compared to 2021.
The most direct flights to Turkey are planned to be made to Istanbul, Antalya, Bodrum, Dalaman and Izmir.
From now on, Turkish airlines will be able to fly more regularly to Russian cities such as Kazan, Yekaterinburg and Saratov, while airports in southern Russia are closed for security reasons due to the so-called “special military operation.” In turn, they will fly 21 times between Moscow, Istanbul and Antalya, and 14 times between St. Petersburg, Istanbul and Antalya.
Tourists from Russia are now outstripping their counterparts from Germany with the lead in tourism numbers into Turkey, according to Russian tourist publication Turprom. In the first four months of this year, 1.1mn tourists arrived in the country from Russia compared with 966,000 from Germany. Bulgaria and Iran were third and fourth with 797,000 and 623,000 respectively, while tourists from the UK were fifth with 529,000.
In a further departure, ferry services between the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi and Trabzon on Turkey’s north-east coast are scheduled to start soon after a nine-year hiatus.
Erkut Çelebi, president of Trabzon Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said services had been scheduled to begin at the end of May but had been postponed due to technical reasons.
The ferry service will take a total of eight hours, while in the old days it would have taken about 12 hours. Authorities have also mooted to be introducing a hydrofoil “rocket”, which would cut the journey time to four hours.
While Russians may be welcome to vacate in Turkey, it is becoming more difficult for those who want to move there in permanent exile as the government introduces bureaucratic hurdles and fines. Many Russia opposition figures and draft-dodgers have made their way to Turkey following the Kremlin's partial mobilisation of military reservists in September.
Marina, a 37-year-old tour guide, has been largely frustrated in her efforts to gain citizenship despite having been married to a local man and having lived in Bodrum for a decade.
“I can’t get citizenship even though I have been paying taxes and was previously married to a Turkish man,” said Marina, who is originally from Yekaterinburg. “Erdogan wants our money but he doesn’t want us in his family, while refugees from Syria are just handed out passports and benefits.”