With the summer vacation season getting underway in Turkey, experts are wondering what the impact of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s crackdown on Gezi Park protesters will be on the country’s tourism sector.
The answer could prove important for Turkey’s overall economy, now experiencing growth of only a few percentage points. Tourism accounted for $ 29 billion in economic activity in Turkey in 2012, according to TurkStat. The country’s reputation as a secure location for both investors and tourists alike helped boost tourism revenue.
But international tourists lodged in the hotels around Taksim, adjacent to Gezi Park, where anti-government protesters were camped, saw an unpleasant scene on May 31 when police attacked the area with tear gas and water cannons. A EurasiaNet.org correspondent observed dozens of tourists trying to flee, including elderly and small children. One Arab tourist carried a young girl down a side street. The girl was limp, apparently badly affected by tear gas.
Some of the demonstrators sought safety and treated the injured inside the luxury Divan Hotel, adjacent to Gezi Park. During another police crackdown on June 15, protesters again sought refuge in the five-star hotel. This time, tear gas filled the hotel’s lobby area, as police pursued the demonstrators inside.
Later, Erdoğan lashed out at the hotel. "We know which hotel owners helped terrorists. Those crimes will not remain unpunished," he told Istanbul supporters on June 16. Erdoğan's comments appeared to specifically target the Divan’s owners, the Koç Group, one of the country's wealthiest conglomerates. Some observers believe that the company may face retribution for not closing its doors to demonstrators.
"Imagine when Erdoğan feels comfortable again after these protests finish. He will directly attack the Koç Group,” predicted Emrullah Uslu, a professor of political science at Istanbul's Yeditepe University.
Tension between Koç Group and Erdoğan are not new. In 2008, Bloomberg reported, the group’s honorary chairman, Rahmi Koç, said that his employees will never have mustaches or beards, which in Turkey are commonly worn by practicing Muslim men, including the prime minister.
Banu Erdoğan, a marketing manager with Divan Hotel, said the company would not comment on a possible investigation. "We did just what we needed to do as humanitarian aid," she said. "Our approach was only humanitarian aid. We accept anyone coming through our doors as a guest."
Uslu believes the Divan Hotel’s actions during the disturbances were not indicative of any links to the protest movement. "There is no link,” he said. “Erdoğan established the link.”
While there may be no formal ties to the anti-government protests, there would seem to be lots of empathy for the protest movement among Turkish business executives. According to a survey by the local business magazine Ekonomist, about half of Turkey’s 137 chief executive officers (CEOs) said they visited Gezi Park during the protests. The survey found that 90 percent of the CEOs agreed with the protesters, a reflection of anti-government feelings among certain sectors of Turkey’s business community.
Looking toward the future, the government-sanctioned crackdown has made hotel operators and tourists nervous.
Employees of the Takim Hill Hotel, which also allowed a number of protesters to organize inside its lobby and hold interviews with journalists during the early days of the protests, refused comment entirely.
While few tourists in Turkey who were not staying around Taksim appeared to interrupt their vacations because of the protests, hotels in the area experienced a loss of business.
A manager at the high-end Point Hotel Taksim, located near the Divan, said that about 28 percent of its bookings were cancelled after June 1.
The Ramada Hotel, located down the road from Gezi Park, was close enough to the chaos also to experience cancellations. "Not huge cancellations, but there are cancellations," said the manager, who refused to give his name, estimating that the protests caused about 200 cancellations. "There are so many tourists around Taksim, but they've moved," he said. That move could have a silver lining, however, he claimed: "There's a positive effect for other hotels [not in Taksim] because tourists moved over there."
An employee of the Taksim Point Hotel estimated that "half" the guests at the hotel left during the protests. "It's the effect of the Gezi Park [protests]; nothing more I think," said the employee, who said she also participated in the protests for several days. "All people were scared because of this."
Guests complained to managers, she said, that area hotels lacked security, and were told that police could not enter private property – an assertion that did not prove the case at the Divan Hotel on June 15.
While Taksim Point Hotel managers were not happy with the disturbance caused by the protests – local shops have been closed for the past 15 days -- they appeared to support the protesters in principle, the employee said.
Though the protests now have died down, Ghislain Sireilles, head of the London-based boutique tour operator Cachet Travel, expressed concern for Turkey's tourism industry in the coming months.
Only a small part of Istanbul was affected by the protests, but Cachet Travel already is seeing a downturn in clients for next year, Sireilles said. "We're taking at the moment less bookings than we usually take at this time of the year," he said. Sireilles estimated that bookings for next year dropped in the past weeks 20-35 percent compared to last year.
Those tourists, who still travel to Istanbul, despite the upheavals, often come with misgivings. Thirty-six-year-old Australian tourist Leesa Brock deleted all her social-media posts about Gezi Park before flying to Istanbul on vacation "because of the way the government is handling [the crisis]," she said. Her understanding is that anyone around Taksim “is considered a terrorist” by the Turkish government.
But even though the protests now have lessened, political scientist Uslu doubts the conflict between the government and Taksim hotel owners will end soon. “It's not going to stop because Erdoğan openly threatened the businessmen,” he said.
Justin Vela is a freelance reporter based in Istanbul.