By: Masoud Lavasani
In years past, close economic and political relations between Tehran and Ankara coupled with certain liberties, such as freedom to drink alcohol or wear a bikini on public beaches, had made Turkey the No. 1 destination for Iranian tourists. As obtaining visas to visit Europe became increasingly difficult after the imposition of Western sanctions, even those Iranians who used to visit Europe chose Turkey as their prime vacation destination. Of note, Turkey does not require visas of Iranian citizens.
However, a series of events this year has resulted in Turkey — and its beaches — losing favor with Iranian tourists. Security issues, mistreatment at the hands of Turkish authorities and Ankara’s anti-Iran rhetoric have all resulted in a decreasing number of Iranians choosing Turkey as their holiday destination.
Even if one overlooks the Dec. 23 explosion at Istanbul’s Sabiha Gokcen Airport, the current security situation in Turkey is not comparable to just last year, before the cease-fire agreement between the Turkish government and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) collapsed. Mehrdad, a researcher who studies tourism at Izmir University in Turkey, told Al-Monitor: “News about the civil war in the east of Turkey is being strongly relayed by Iranian media outlets. During the past few months, and especially after the military operations in Turkey’s eastern Kurdish provinces, Iranian tourists have become concerned regarding the security situation in this country. On a daily basis, my family asks me about the security situation of the city in which I live and study, and whenever there is news regarding an explosion or a bombing, they call to make sure I am fine. This is why the Iranian families who used to go to Turkey on vacation are now going to Armenia or Dubai instead.”
Tehran-based journalist and tourism expert Foad Shams told Al-Monitor, “Ever since the start of the civil war in Syria and the tensions that arose because of it, Iranians have become less eager to travel to Turkey. Their reluctance is so strong that even sales and special discounts on tours have not helped in attracting travelers. In addition, the anti-Iranian rhetoric of Turkish officials has had a very negative effect on Iranian public opinion. A lot of Iranians are looking for a replacement for Turkey as their vacation destination, and as a result countries such as Armenia, Tajikistan and Georgia have become popular tourist destinations for Iranians in recent years. According to some surveys, half of the foreign tourists who visit Armenia are Iranian. I think this trend will continue in the future, and Turkey will no longer be a popular vacation spot for Iranians.”
Discussing the recent series of unfortunate incidents involving Iranians, such as the attack on a tourist bus in eastern Turkey and also the two blasts targeting Tehran-Ankara trains, Shams told Al-Monitor, “Security is a very important part of tourism. Tourists only travel to places where they feel safe. If they hear that a certain country is experiencing internal conflict and that there is the danger of explosions and bombings, they will most certainly remove that country from their list of vacation spots. Little by little, Iranian tourists are starting to feel unsafe about traveling to Turkey.”
Indeed, the repeated attacks on buses carrying Iranian tourists have resulted in Iranian authorities warning citizens against overland travel to Turkey. Shams said, “If Turkey’s internal conflict continues, Iranians will start thinking of it as an unsafe country and will no longer travel there no matter how cheap it might be. After all, safety is the most important criteria of tourism. The more Iranians feel that Turkey has turned unsafe, the less they will travel there.”
The magnitude of the problem is evident when considering that Iranians are — or perhaps soon used to be — the second-largest group of tourists visiting Turkey, after Germans. Indeed, there appears to be a larger trend at work. Al-Monitor spoke to Peyman Mohammadi, manager of Rimagasht-e-Shargh travel agency, which had an office in Istanbul until three months ago. He said the difficult security situation in eastern Turkey has resulted in the complete cancellation of tours to Lake Van, one of the most popular destinations for Iranian tourists. Mohammadi also told Al-Monitor, “In addition to all the news regarding armed attacks and bombings in Istanbul, as well as news regarding the refugees drowning off the southern shores of Turkey, the Turkish government is cracking down on Iranian companies, and we hear that they are mistreating Iranian tourists. News regarding an Iranian woman being mistreated in Turkey was also widely circulated by Iranian media outlets.”
Mohammadi additionally told Al-Monitor about Iranian travelers worrying about their luggage being stolen when traveling with Turkish Airlines. “Last year, a number of Iranian media outlets, including Shargh newspaper, published a series of reports regarding this issue. This news, in addition to the way Iranian travelers were being treated at Turkey’s airports — for example, Iranian travelers being arrested for protesting flight delays — has created more dissatisfaction among Iranian tourists. There were also other disturbing reports concerning Iranian travelers, including reports about some of them becoming ill due to food poisoning and not receiving proper medical treatment, and being forced to pay a great sum of money for the necessary treatment,” he said.
A report was published in Turkey’s Taraf daily Dec. 15 saying that Ankara has decided to closely monitor the 3,800 Iranian companies that are active in Turkey. Referring to this matter, Mohammadi told Al-Monitor, “These crackdowns are not new. Since [President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan’s administration’s corruption scandal, which resulted in the resignation of a number of his ministers and the arrest of [Iranian businessman] Reza Zarrab, police officials have been closely monitoring Iranian companies and Iranian businessmen. Instances such as non-renewals of work permits for Iranian citizens and making it difficult for Iranian firms to provide insurance for their Turkish employees all show that Turkish police [are] not very friendly when it comes to Iranians.” Yet, Mohammadi believes that the level of economic cooperation and cultural connections between the two countries is so high that potentially short-lived political tensions will not have any long-lasting effects.
Moreover, despite the difficult circumstances, some see opportunity — at least for Iran. In the words of Shams, the Tehran-based journalist and tourism expert, “These recent developments, in addition to the recent tension between Turkey and Russia, have created a good opportunity for Iran to attract Russian tourists. Considering that Russia currently does not have a good relationship with Turkey, while it enjoys good relations with Iran, the time is ripe for encouraging Russian tourists to come to Iran. Russians have always been interested in visiting the warm shores of the Persian Gulf, which have always been a point of attraction to them.”