Turkey's Tourism Industry Benefits From Arab Spring

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Months of unrest in the Middle East and North Africa continue to take their economic toll. While tourism figures are down across the region, patterns are shifting. Beirut became the favored destination for Arab travelers reluctant to endure post Sept. 11 hostility in the West, but now it's losing those wealthy Persian Gulf visitors to Turkey.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

Months of unrest in the Mideast and North Africa are taking an economic toll. Tourism is down across the region, and travel patterns within the region are shifting as well. For many years, Beirut was a favorite destination for many wealthy Arabs, particularly those from the Persian Gulf. But now Beirut is losing those tourists to Turkey.

NPRs Peter Kenyon reports from Istanbul and Beirut.

(Soundbite of a conversation)

PETER KENYON: Beiruts seaside promenade is bathed in afternoon sun, but on this day the sights are left unseen. A group of old men huddles around a backgammon board, as 21-year-old Rasha Abdel Nour sits on a bench nearby. She doesnt follow politics, but she knows something is up. Even her relatives are skipping their summer visit this year.

Ms. RASHA ABDEL NOUR: (Through Translator) Yes, you know, I dont really understand much about whats happening. But of course everybody here has relatives who are outside, just like me. You know, I have people who live in Switzerland, live in France. And you know, one minute theyre coming and the next minute theyre not.

KENYON: Lebanon has not seen a popular uprising during the Arab Spring, but its suffering nonetheless. The head of the hoteliers association said business was down 40 percent in the first half of the year. And the tourism minister made a hasty visit to Abu Dhabi in a bid to bring back Persian Gulf visitors.

(Soundbite of ringing phone)

KENYON: Inside the venerable jewelry shop of Aziz and Walid Mouzannar, established in 1847, Caroline Rezniotopoulos says theyre relying on longtime customers to get by, but newer firms are having a grim season.

CAROLINE REZNIOTOPOULOS (Aziz and Walid Mouzannar Jewelers): Its really difficult. They are facing a hard time. Especially for the Souk, there is a section for jewelers, they just opened. They are new in the business and they were counting on the tourists. And unfortunately theres no business.

(Soundbite of music)

KENYON: Shes referring to the Beirut Souks, a new, lavish downtown shopping mall. The fans are spraying a cooling mist into the humid air and the dance music is pulsing. But the shoppers are missing.

John, the manager of Badrani Jewelry, says problems next door in Syria seem to be keeping the wealthy Gulf Arabs away this summer.

JOHN (Manager, Badrani Jewelry): Yes, we can say that because especially the Syrian situation, the border is difficult. Thats why they prefer another place, like Turkish.

(Soundbite of a conversation)

KENYON: In a year when Arab tourists are still reluctant to face the suspicious stares of Europeans, and nervous about Mideast playgrounds such as Lebanon, they seem to have found their niche in the city that straddles Asia and Europe.

In a ceramic shop near Istanbul's Taksim Square, Mehmet Ak says the growth in Arab tourism is significant.

Mr. MEHMET AK: (Ceramic Shop Owner): Through Translator) Yes, there are more Middle East tourists now, especially the Arabs. I think its two-fold. Turkey is cheaper than other places. We have made great strides in embracing the Mid-East. Theyre comfortable here and so theyre coming.

KENYON: Its meant some adjusting for shop owners like Mehmet, used to dealing with Europeans. For one thing, hes rediscovered his bargaining chops.

Mr. AK: (Through Translator) The Europeans might buy one or two things, while the Arabs are great customers. Sometimes they go over the top. But boy, do they bargain. Thats a cultural trait we share with them.

KENYON: How long this wave of Arab tourism will last is anybodys guess. But at the moment, Turkeys combination of European amenities and Asian cultural habits is paying off handsomely.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.

KELLY: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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