The number of cultural travelers has remain the same in the course of the last three decades yet efforts to entice more cultural tourists to Turkey might be the cure for what ails the country’s tourism sector, according to a veteran figure.
The pandemic has furthered consolidated Turkey’s comparative advantages in cultural tourism, said Faruk Pekin a pioneer in the industry.
“Whichever country has open-air historical sites will have a comparative advantage,” he recently told the Hürriyet Daily News. “
Turkey has much more when compared with any other country in the Mediterranean.”
Tell us how you have fared during the pandemic, and what is the current situation in cultural tourism?
Currently there are no foreign groups coming to Turkey for cultural tourism. In terms of domestic tours, we have started to conduct our tours physically in Istanbul.
But the pandemic has introduced a new dimension to our sector. Thanks to zoom meetings, I’ve started to deliver speeches on Instagram, and we are currently selling online tours quite successfully.
If I were to go on a Tibet/Ladakh tour for example, around 20 people would have participated physically on the tour; with the pandemic, that could have perhaps fallen to 15. Nearly 50 to 60 people paid for our Tibet/Ladakh online tour.
This was an unknown phenomenon for us. The pandemic has certainly introduced a new space for us. We have our former travelers who can no longer do physical travel because of their age or health conditions but still want to travel.
Online tours, which last two hours, followed by a half-hour Q&A, provide an opportunity to those physically unable to travel. But this is a trend in its baby steps. We do not know whether it will continue.
Another current trend is for travelers to take their own cars alongside a guide in a separate car. There are applications on their phones so they can listen to the guide.
In short, the pandemic had led to different methods.
At any rate, I believe Turkey will only be able to secure economic gains by making cultural tourism a locomotive for the sector.
Can you elaborate? Currently, the focus is still on mass tourism based on sun, sea and sand.
I argue it is better to have 15 million cultural travelers instead of 60 million tourists and that we can make better economic earnings.
Years ago before we had hotel chains, cultural tourism was the locomotive of the sector. The richest cultural travelers in Europe used to come to Turkey and take a blue voyage [on the sea] or spend some time at the seaside despite the then-moderate accommodation capacity. Rich cultural travelers from Europe and the United States used to do a lot of shopping.
Are we talking of 1980’s?
1989 was the peak of cultural tourism, but those good days ended with the first (1990) Gulf War. In the aftermath, the newly constructed hotels and holiday resorts of the Mediterranean marketed themselves at low prices. That’s where we made the mistake; we lost the cultural travelers, and we couldn’t return to the old levels.
When you compare the number of foreign tourists visiting museums in the late 1980s with the number in the mid-2010s, it’s approximately the same: around 2.5 million a year.
I am surprised. Turkey has opened many impressive museums in the last two decades, starting with Zeugma in the southeast.
There was an explosion in terms of domestic travelers. But the number of foreign travelers is not high. Only 2 percent of foreign tourists who come to Antalya visit the city’s museum, which is small yet impressive.
If you have a comparative advantage, you can always market it at higher prices. I have been all over the world, and Turkey is number one in terms of cultural tourism.
When you talk about sun, sea and sand tourism, Turkey has many competitors in the Mediterranean. In some, the sand might be less beautiful; in others, the sea season is shorter. But when competitors lower their prices you end up marketing for cheaper prices, and that scares away foreign cultural travelers.
Turkey needs to prioritize cultural tourism. The discovery of Göbeklitepe [a Paleolithic site in southeastern Turkey] created a wave of enthusiasm. But we did not promote Göbeklitepe or Zeugma well enough to attract foreign tourists.
You said cheap prices scare away cultural travelers, but there has been a lot of investment in mass tourism in seaside resorts. Can’t the two exist together?
On the contrary. What I meant is that when you build an image as a cheap country, that has a negative impact because cultural travelers do not want to see themselves as going to cheap places.
If cultural tourism was to be a locomotive, we could better market Turkey. After cultural sightseeing in Turkey, we can send the cultural traveler to seaside resorts. We can say, “you must be tired after all this travel; you can now have a rest on the seaside.”
And then the rooms will be sold for $350 instead of $50.
Indeed and afterwards, the best of those seeking for sun, sea and sand tourism will also start coming. For years, we have been unable to explain it [to stakeholders in the sector].
I thought the pandemic would make us to think and take stock. 2020 appears to be a lost year. If there won’t be a [virus] surge, things could get better during autumn until November.
Without question, domestic tourism has seen a huge boost in Turkey in recent years. In 2019, we could not answer the demand to visit Göbeklitepe and Zeugma. I don’t want to be pessimistic in terms of domestic tourism for 2021, but this depends on the number of COVID-19 cases. If the cases remain at the current level, then it looks like we can get rid of the pandemic.
But we need to focus on cultural tourism. Cultural travelers are more loyal. Compared to other tourists, they are less affected by civil unrest, wars or earthquakes. Turkey needs to make peace with cultural travelers and start promoting its cultural advantages better. We need to start a campaign with the motto, “You can’t die before seeing Turkey.”
What makes you say Turkey ranks tops as a cultural tourism destination?
Starting with the Karain cave near Antalya and including Göbeklitepe in Şanlıurfa, which goes back to the Paleolithic age, there are numerous civilizational layers in Turkey that aren’t found in other countries. There is incredible diversity and depth; there are more ancient Greek sites than in Greece. They are well maintained and properly exhibited. We have fabulous museums, too.
Would you say that the pandemic might encourage more to opt for cultural tourism, since some will avoid staying in holiday resorts with hundreds of people at the same time?
Indeed. I believe it is by prioritizing cultural tourism that Turkey’s tourism sector can recover from the pandemic. Whichever country has the most open-air museums or open-air historical sites will have a comparative advantage.
Turkey has much more when compared with any other country in the Mediterranean.
*Who is Faruk Pekin?
Faruk Pekin is the founder and CEO of the Fest Travel Agency, which is marking its 35th year this summer. Pekin is considered as the pioneering leader of cultural tourism in Turkey.
Since 1988 he has been organizing Adım Adım İstanbul (Strolling Through İstanbul) and added tours in Turkey as well as in the world.
He was the president of the Cultural Awareness Foundation, a non-profit organization, for many years where he also taught “History of Religions”, in seminars organize by the Foundation.
Faruk Pekin is the former President of the Committee of Cultural Tourism (nowadays Honorary President) within TURSAB (The Union of the Travel Agencies of Turkey) and is also the advisor to the President of TURSAB.
Faruk Pekin is a member of the Board of Directors of ISTO (International Social Tourism Organization) and author of several books.