EUROPEAN TRAVEL POLICY, 12 July 2002

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TURKISH TOURISM INDUSTRY LOOKS TOWARDS EU MEMBERSHIP

EUROPEAN TRAVEL POLICY, 12 July 2002

Turkish tourism professionals have been looking closely at what Turkey’s membership of the European Union might mean for them. An early-July meeting brought some two hundred of them together, in the resort of Side on Turkey’s southern Mediterranean coast. Their expectations were straightforward – lower rates of VAT for the sector, an improved inward investment climate, easier visa formalities and greater prestige for Turkey in Europe. But a start was also made to assessing in more detail how EU legislation could affect the day-to-day running of their businesses once it became part of Turkish law.

Much of debate focused on the accession process and the benefits EU membership might bring to Turkey – since the meeting was organised by the recently-established EU-Turkey Co-operation Association (Turkab), a group of leading Turkish businessmen keen on speeding up Turkey’s accession to the EU, in liaison with the Antalya Chamber of Commerce and Industry ,ATS, and the Mediterranean Association of Touristic Hoteliers, AKTOB. Turkab chairman Erdal Kabatepe urged the country’s national assembly to meet quickly and "make the changes that make Turkey a western country" – and he particularly urged rform of Turkish visa rules for tourists.

Mustafa Tasar, the Turkish Minister for Tourism, had encouraging words for the sector. With earnings of over $12 billion from nearly 12 million visitors in 2000 alone, tourism was, he said, "becoming a star of the Turkish world". The "picture of Turkey in the outside world" had tourism at its centre and he was anxious to make the sector "a trademark" for the country, using it to enhance Turkish prestige internationally. It was the "best sector for meeting the EU’s criteria", and a "driving force for the future" which would overcome "social and regional discrepancies" and create jobs for women and young people. It was a "model of a modern and democratic society" and had to be "an inspiration for the other sectors". And it should have a higher platform in Turkey’s discussions with the European Union, he said.

The domestic Turkish debate about EU accession remains lively – as the current political turbulence there clearly demonstrates – and tourism was repeatedly depicted at the meeting as an obvious bridge between Turkey and the EU. Volkan Vural, Ambassador in charge of the Turkish Prime Minister’s Secretariat General for EU affairs, predicted huge potential benefits to the tourism sector from EU membership. Tourists would travel to Turkey in increased numbers and with increased confidence, happy in the knowledge that the laws in Turkey would be "the same as elsewhere". Above all, perhaps, the country would be seen as a safer place for investment, with the result that inward investment in tourism development would increase. Indeed, tourists could actually "help Turkey to accede to the European Union" .

Vural’s remarks came in the course of an impassioned speech depicting the EU as helping "carry Turkey into the future", and describing Turkey’s membership bid as "a search for peace, friendship and prosperity". He rejected the claims by some participants that the EU was a "Christian club" which was hesitant about admitting a predominantly Muslim state. He received official reassurances that the EU wanted Turkey to join as soon as possible, delivered by the Danish Ambassador in Ankara (and representing the new EU Presidency), Christian Hoppe.

In part the tourism debate reviewed EU tourism policy. Its evocations of past EU measures, going back even further than the failed but still unforgotten Philoxenia proposal, left some participants struggling to see how Turkish tourism businesses would benefit. Even the discussion of the Council of Ministers resolution of May this year on the future of tourism did not convince all of them that a strong and clear EU policy on tourism was awaiting them on accession.

But there was some concrete discussion. Ahmet Barut, the chairman of the Mediterranean Association of Touristic Hoteliers, agreed with Volkan Vural that EU membership was the key to efforts to attract more investors in Turkish tourism, and especially investors from Europe. Europe was, he reminded his audience, the single biggest market for Turkey: 50% of all visitors were European and in the Antalya/Mediterranean coast region alone, this proportion rose to 70%. He thought, too, that Turkey was well placed to compete against other EU member states, not least in the level of environmental standards applied and in the quality of facilities it offered. However, it had also to continue developing new markets and products if it was to keep up with its competitors.

Menderes Türel, chairman of the Antalya Chamber of Commerce and Industry, emphasised the opportunities offered to Turkish tourism by European funding programmes. He saw a possibility for Turkey to harmonise its rate of VAT on tourism services (18%) with what he described as "the EU rate" (a figure apparently derived from the average rate on hotel accommodation across the Union). But Türel was critical too, particularly of the power of EU tour operators in Turkey – either as owners of hotels and other suppliers, or as negotiators with Turkish-owned businesses – and he urged the EU to do more protect cultural heritage in the Mediterranean area. He too called for reform of Turkish visa rules for tourists.

A closing discussion chaired by Talha Çamas, a Turkab board member and chairman of one of Turkey’s leading tourism companies, Visitur, also ranged broadly across the agenda. There were further expressions of strong support for Turkish accession to the EU, from Cem Kinay, chairman of the holiday company, Magic Life, and Ibrahim Birkan, director-general of Turser, a hotel management company. Tavit Köletavitoglu, chairman of the Turkish Tourism Investors’ Association, said he was convinced that tourism was a "strong weapon in integrating Turkey into the EU". Hasan Kocatürk, head of EU affairs for the Turkish tourism ministry, listed a number of measures that the Turkish government had already taken (or was taking) to implement EU legislation such as the package travel directive, environmental policy and the abolition of restrictions on mobility and residence. There is even a draft law to reduce Turkish VAT on tourism to a level nearer the EU average, he said.

There was discussion too of the importance for the sector of areas of legislation other than purely tourism policy – in terms of the costs and implications for the sector of meeting the full body of EU rules on everything from competition to culture, and environment to energy, and in terms of funding opportunities that might be available both before accession and afterwards. And in an echo of current EU debates on tourism, the subject was also raised of ensuring that the sector is effectively organised at both national and European level.

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