Tourism and COVID: Finally the Light at the End of the Tunnel?
by Alp Ünal AYHAN
As COVID-19 ravaged world economies, governments around the world are urgently in need of rejuvenating theirs by reopening businesses after the lockdown period. Turkey, earning 34.5 billion USD from tourism in 2019, according to TurkStat, is especially desperate to reopen its tourism industry. This is no easy feat, as borders around the world remain closed because the pandemic is still ongoing. Commercial passenger flights have ground to a halt and the limited number of flights that can be flown are made possible with restrictions. The number of border crossings into Turkey took a hard hit in the second quarter of 2020 according to Turkey’s Ministry of Tourism and Culture. Turkey couldn’t put an emphasis on domestic tourism countries like New Zealand and Canada did due to the declining situation of the Turkish economy and the soaring cost of living.
Relying on international tourists to choose to travel to Turkey, the Turkish government took a number of measures to present Turkey as a safe country to visit during the pandemic. Turkey Tourism Promotion and Development Agency launched the “Safe Tourism Certification Program.” This program covers accommodation facilities, food and beverage serving establishments, and tour and transfer vehicles. It checks businesses against a lengthy list of criteria relating to hygiene and isolation of COVID positive guests. A list of certified businesses is published on the Agency’s website, and establishments who are certified display their badges and certificates with QR codes leading to inspection data inside, letting tourists see it.
Also, part of the publicity effort is reported by state-run media corporations TRT World and Anadolu Agency’s reports on Turkey’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Joined with Turkey’s Directorate of Communications, they helped prop up the notion that Turkey is a safe country to visit COVID-wise by painting Turkey’s situation in a positive light.
Precautions to prevent the spread of the virus are also taken. Masks are mandated to passengers flying on Turkey’s airline companies, along with the distribution of “hygiene kits” with additional masks and disinfectant wipes and physical distancing and hygiene measures taken at airports across the country. Airlines claim that the air inside their aircraft is renewed 20-30 times an hour and filtered with HEPA filters, making it as clean as the air in hospital operating rooms. Despite these efforts, airlines’ decision not to block middle seats in rows in order not to increase ticket prices any further caused confusion and anxiety among passengers regarding physical distancing. Nevertheless, airlines defend that passengers can fly on their planes with peace of mind.
On top of this Turkey has almost fully opened its borders to tourists. Entry restrictions only apply to people traveling from Afghanistan and Bangladesh. Turkey also doesn’t require incoming foreigners to quarantine or self-isolate for 14 days, diverting from countries like the United Kingdom, Germany, and Italy. IATA, the organization that represents air carriers, places Turkey in the partly restrictive category in its COVID-19 Travel Restrictions Map.
Beaches in Turkey remain open despite fears of infection but beaches are thought as safe as long as physical distancing rules are enforced according to the University of North Carolina’s Zeynep Tufekci.
Overall, Turkey went great lengths to reopen tourism, daring to potentially risk public health rather than risking the industry that accounts for almost 5% of its GDP and fifteenth of its employment. But has it paid off?
It may be too early to decide. According to Turkey’s Ministry of Tourism and Culture, the number of foreign visitors entering Turkey declined by two thirds in March 2020 compared to March last year, and by 99% in April and May. June 2020 was when Turkey initiated its reopening process so it’s hard to see for sure but the percentage dropped slightly to 95% that month. TurkStat decided not to announce its tourism statistics for the second quarter of 2020 as it couldn’t complete the necessary surveys as part of the effort to reduce the spread of COVID at the start of the pandemic.
Regardless of how many tourists end up arriving over the next few months, tourists are coming in as we speak and this creates huge challenges as more people in our borders, especially from countries that couldn’t contain the virus as well as others-like the United States-means more cases and more required healthcare system capacity to cope with the influx of patients, more contact tracing which is already strained and more testing which is-just like contact tracing-at its limits.
The ship for containing the virus completely is already sailed, so until a vaccine or a cure for COVID-19 is found we have to deal with the new normal that involves restrictions, economic damage, and most importantly more people getting sick and dying. The best Turkey and its more than 2 million tourism workers can do is reopen and hope for the best as uncertainty looms over tourism more than any other part of the economy.