By SUZAN FRASER and AYSE WIETING, Associated Press
BELEK, Turkey (AP) — After losing two years to the COVID-19 pandemic, traders in the heart of the Turkish Riviera had hoped for a strong tourist season this year to help keep their businesses afloat. But Russia’s war in Ukraine is rapidly chilling their spirits.
“We are trying to earn our bread through tourism, but it seems that the war has also ended this (tourist) season,” Devrim Akcay said outside his clothing store in the resort town of Belek, along the province from Antalya, on the Mediterranean coast. .
Nowhere is the threat of a single ripple effect of war – lost tourism – felt more strongly than in Antalya, a region dotted with glistening beaches and archaeological sites where visitors from Russia and Ukraine , as well as from Germany, are the main contributors to tourism income.
Countries from Turkey and Thailand to Egypt and Cuba are bracing for the loss of Russian and Ukrainian visitors just as their travel sectors sought to rebound from the pandemic. As many tourism-dependent economies also grapple with runaway inflation and other woes, hotel workers, guides and others who serve visitors to the two warring countries are expecting more than pain.
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The turquoise waters and white sand beaches of the Cuban resort town of Varadero, which until recently hosted a significant number of tourists – mainly Russians – are now almost empty.
Russians accounted for almost a third of visitors to Cuba last year – more than 146,000 – and some saw it as a way to breathe life into an industry suffering from the pandemic and tougher sanctions imposed by former US President Donald Trump.
“Now we also have to do without Russian tourism,” said José Luis Perelló Cabrera, a Cuban economist and tourism expert.
The Association of Tour Operators of Russia estimated that between 6,000 and 8,000 Russian tourists were on the island when the war in Ukraine broke out. Several flights departed from Varadero in early March to bring them home.
“Losing this market is a blow for Cuba,” said Natasha Strelkova, a Russian-Cuban tour operator and guide on the island.
Across the Atlantic, Russians and Ukrainians can account for up to 35% of Egyptian tourists each year, said Hisham el-Demiry, former head of the government’s Tourism Development Authority.
He fears that the economic crisis caused by the war will mean fewer customers overall.
“It’s a huge impact, a domino effect. … The war has changed people’s priorities, and tourism, which is a very sensitive industry, will be the first victim,” he said.
Rania Ali, front desk manager at a four-star hotel in Hurghada, said they “were over 75% occupancy at the start of the war, now we’re only 35%”.
Russians were only among the top 10 visitor groups to Thailand until late last year when the country began to reopen to international tourists. Russia restarted charter flights relatively early and in winter, when Thailand’s mild temperatures make it a popular destination, helping its people become the main visitors among the modest numbers Thailand has begun to welcome.
The November-March season when Russians usually visit is coming to an end, and the fall in the value of the ruble is making travel to Thailand and elsewhere much more expensive now, said Chattan Kunjira Na Ayudhya, vice governor of international marketing for tourism. Authority of Thailand.
“This will probably lead Russian tourists to turn to destinations that offer them all-inclusive packages with better prices,” he said.
In Turkey, officials had hoped that with the easing of pandemic restrictions, tourism could duplicate or exceed figures from 2019, when some 52 million visitors – including about 7 million Russians and 1.6 million Ukrainians – grossed $34 billion in revenue. The total number of visitors fell to 15 million in 2020, but fell back to around 29 million last year.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had predicted that an open economy and strong growth this year could help him win re-election next year, experts say. It’s a tall order for a country in a currency crisis and with inflation above 54%, making it difficult for consumers to buy even basic commodities.
“For this to happen, Turkey needs to have its strong tourism and trade ties with Russia unimpeded,” said Soner Cagaptay, Turkey analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The expectation before the war was “maybe 10, 15 million Russians would visit Turkey this summer and spend $10 billion, a boost for Turkey’s struggling economy,” Cagaptay said.
Now business groups say they are seeing an erosion of two-way trade, including a drop in demand for Turkish goods because Russian buyers struggle to make payments. And this despite the fact that Turkey has not adhered to the sanctions against Moscow.
Agricultural producer and exporter Nevzat Akcan is worried that he will not be able to ship the red peppers he grows in greenhouses in Aksu district only for the Russian and Ukrainian markets.
“May God protect us if we join the sanctions against Russia. It would be a disaster for Turkish agriculture. We would be ruined and finished,” Akcan said. “I don’t even want to think about it.”
NATO member Turkey, which has cultivated close ties with Russia and Ukraine, is trying to balance those relations and has positioned itself as a neutral party trying to mediate. Turkey has criticized Russia’s military actions in Ukraine as “unacceptable”, but also said it would not abandon either side.
The Antalya region is haunted by the memory of 2016, when Russia dealt a heavy blow to the Turkish economy by banning the import of certain agricultural products and stopping charter flights after the Turkish army shot down a Russian fighter jet in 2015.
Agriculture has already started to suffer from the effects of the war, said Davut Cetin, director of the Antalya Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
“The Ukrainian market has been closed. No fresh fruits or vegetables are leaving for Ukraine now,” Cetin said.
Associated Press reporter Mehmet Guzel in Belek, Turkey; Samy Magdy in Cairo; Juan Zamorano in Havana and Chalida Ekvitthayavechnukul in Bangkok contributed.
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