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Turkish tourism feels ripples of Arab Spring

1 of 2. Tourists stand in front of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul July 17, 2007.

Credit: Reuters/Osman Orsal

DJERBA, Tunisia | Mon Apr 16, 2012 10:18am EDT

DJERBA, Tunisia (Reuters) - Thirteen months of unrest in Syria have hurt tourism in neighbouring Turkey, which expects visitor numbers to remain stable in 2012 at more than 30 million, Turkish Tourism Minister Ertugrul Gunay said on Monday.

Speaking to Reuters on the sidelines of a Mediterranean tourism conference in Tunisia, Gunay said his country was keen to promote regional tourism in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.

"The Arab Spring reflected both positively and negatively on Turkish tourism. Last year, some of the reservations from Egypt and Tunisia shifted to Turkey, as well as Italy or Greece," Gunay said.

"But the most important thing is, because of the lack of a resolution in Syria, Turkey lost more reservations than it gained last year. In recent years, there have also been some political tensions between Israel and Turkey and this lost us some of the Israeli market as well."

Turkey saw a sharp rise in visitor numbers from Syria and other Arab nations after lifting visa requirements for many countries in the region in 2009. But with violence gripping Syria and people adjusting to life after revolution elsewhere, the numbers coming from the Middle East have dropped.

Turkey, nearby and relatively stable, was also a favoured destination for many Israelis, but visitor numbers from there have also dropped since relations between the two countries turned sour in 2010 after nine Turkish activists were killed when Israeli forces boarded a ship trying to reach Gaza.

More than 24,000 Syrian refugees are sheltering in southern Turkey as the crisis in Syria has increasingly degenerated from a peaceful uprising into violence.

The United Nations estimates that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces have killed more than 9,000 people. Syrian authorities say foreign-backed militants have killed more than 2,500 soldiers and police.

U.N. peacekeepers began their mission in Syria on Friday, but activists said Syrian forces were still shelling parts of the battered city of Homs and rounding up opponents.

"What we want is peace in the region, in the Middle East and in all the world. The tourism industry develops in a peaceful atmosphere and it supports a peaceful atmosphere," Gunay said.

Turkey, which straddled Europe and Asia and was once the heart of the Ottoman Empire, attracted 31.46 million tourists in 2011, an increase of almost 10 percent. Tourist receipts amounted to more than $23 billion.

In the first two months of 2012, the total number of foreign visitors was 1.98 million people, down 3.7 percent from the same period last year.

Gunay said more than 30 million visitors were expected in 2012 again but forecast earnings from tourism to reach some $30 billion, as Turkey seeks to reduce its reliance on beach-based mass tourism and attract higher value visitors.

"We have been known as a mass tourism country. We should continue this but supplement it with cultural, health and other types of tourism and our infrastructure is ready for this," he said.

"For example, up to last year, the biggest mosaics museum was in Tunisia, in Bardo. Now the biggest is in eastern Turkey.... This year in the west near Izmir, we will also open the biggest conference centre in the eastern Mediterranean."

(Created by Lin Noueihed)

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