Islamic tourism booming in Turkey, but problems lie ahead

By bne IntelliNews July 8, 2008

Nicholas Birch in Cesme, near Izmir, western Turkey -

Like all good businessmen, hotelier Serafettin Ulukent has an eye for the right trend. When he opened his holiday village on Turkey's Aegean coast in the 1980s, his first guests were German surfers, attracted by the region's almost constant winds. In 1998, though, he stepped in to bail out 100 conservative Islamic guests abandoned by a local operator he'd rented the property to, and he knew there was no turning back.

"I gave them a free holiday, and they begged me to take them back next year," he remembers. "I agreed: the surfers were fun, but these people had real money."

Back then, Ulukent's New Meltem was only the second hotel in Turkey specifically designed to cater for conservative Muslim guests - no alcohol, and segregated bathing for men and women. Nine years on, there are thought to be more than 30, and Islamic tourism has become one of the fastest-growing parts of a sector that brought in $18.5bn in 2007 and looks set to grow 15% this year.

Growth has been particularly rapid since the religious-minded AKP came to power in 2002, leading some to single out the hotels as evidence of the creeping Islamisation of Turkish society. Ulukent disagrees. "My mother covered her head, and when we went to the sea, she'd sit as close as she could to the water to catch the spray," he remembers. "This is how Anatolians go to the beach. The only difference is that now ordinary people have fridges and TVs, the poor have become rich, and they want to go swimming too."

Mostly from Istanbul and the more conservative cities of the Anatolian interior, his guests are all professional people. They have to be to afford his fees - €65 a day for full board.

Samll but growing

A non-practicing Muslim married to a German woman, Ulukent is something of a maverick in the sector. Most recent growth has been powered by well-known conservative holding companies like Kombassan and Kamer, from the staunchly pro-AKP city of Konya. Their role in expansion has been impressive. New Meltem has only 68 rooms; the hotels that both holdings opened last year have 1,500 beds. "In a country where about two-thirds of women cover their heads, it's obvious there is going to be demand," says Sefa Ekin, manager of a small Islamic hotel that opened discretely in May in the popular resort town of Bodrum.

Despite the rapid recent growth, though, the sector remains small, with total guests numbering about 50,000 last year. And there is one major challenge facing the sector's immediate future: due to start on September 1, 10 days earlier than last year, the holy month of Ramadan will fall slap in the middle of the summer holidays for the next decade.

Accommodating the two competing types of tourism is a conundrum that has encouraged some major Islamic tourism players to scale back their activities. Kamer Holding, for instance, is planning to pull out of one of the two hotels that it runs from next year.

The chairman of Ilay Group, Ilhami Sungur, says he'll be renting out two out of three of the facilities he manages too. But he insists variety is the only way the sector can survive. "The growth in the number of hotels had led to a reduction in our bookings as it was," he says. "From now on, we're thinking of moving away from the beaches and into spa-style and city hotels. The concept will stay the same."

Ilay Group has got no further than looking for potential new facilities to manage - in Istanbul, Ankara and Kayseri. But three miles down the road from New Meltem, the owners of Club Familia hotel are already hard at work building spa facilities. In Cappadocia, just down the road from Kayseri, meanwhile, two spas are already in action providing thalassotherapy and mud baths in line with the very best Muslim precepts.


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Islamic tourism booming in Turkey, but problems lie ahead

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