Talking Turkey with some specialists on the destination

By Felicity Long
INSIGHTWatching a destination morph from relatively untouristed to bona fide luxury hot spot is always interesting, but the speed with which the transformation is happening in Turkey could give you whiplash.

During my first visit to Bodrum in 1995, I was struck by how absurdly inexpensive the hotels and restaurants were, given the charm of the turquoise sea, the appealing sidewalk cafes and restaurants and the friendly skippers beckoning tourists aboard gullets -- traditional wooden schooners -- for a day on the water.

That was then.

The next year, John F. Kennedy Jr. spent part of his honeymoon in Bodrum, and the attention it received made it clear that more visitors, and with that higher prices, would soon follow.

By 2010, hotels like the Marmara Bodrum, the W Istanbul, the Four Seasons Hotel at the Bosphorus-Istanbul and the Mardan Palace in Antalya had changed the landscape for well-heeled travelers.

"Turkey is a very service-oriented society, so we have always been able to provide a level of comfort for travel, but to also be able to provide so many new luxury hotels is a real boon," said Earl Starkey, a ProTravel International travel agent and owner of Sophisticated Travel, a travel agency based in New York and Istanbul that specializes in Turkey.

Marti Istanbul Quad RestaurantStarkey was especially excited about the recent opening of the Amanruya, an Aman resort in Bodrum, noting: "This is a brand that really speaks to the luxury traveler." He is also anticipating the opening of the Shangri-La hotel on the Bosphorus in Istanbul in 2013.

Other new hotels include the Marti Istanbul Hotel in Taksim, which is already targeting international visitors with a Christmas Eve buffet and other holiday events, and the Viceroy Istanbul, set to open in 2014 on 14 acres overlooking the Bosphorus.

There is more to the destination than toney hotels, however, Starkey said, noting that a "boom in art, culture and cuisine in Turkey gives us a lot of exposure on the global scale. Istanbul in particular is really going through a renaissance, and I think this is bringing a lot more visitors as word gets out that Turkey is not just about its historical treasures, which are enumerable, but also a very exciting place to be right now [with] a very young, educated and engaged society."

As the culture and infrastructure have evolved, so, too, has the make-up of the luxury client.

"We have always had honeymooners visit Turkey, but I think the area where we have seen the most growth is in multigenerational families and families in general," Starkey said.

Karen Fedorko Sefer, Turkey specialist and owner and president of SeaSong, a travel agency based in Istanbul, also reports strong growth in luxury bookings, particularly families and "younger, hip, trendy clients" who are discovering Istanbul and Bodrum.

Top activities for high-end clients, aside from sightseeing in Istanbul, include yachting on the Bosphorus, hot-air ballooning in Cappadocia and prowling city nightlife, she said.

As to concerns about unrest in the region, Sefer said, "We had a number of people ask us about safety over the last six months... [but] I have seen no decline in bookings. The business in Turkey was extremely strong in 2012 and looks to continue into 2013."

Starkey agrees, adding: "We have definitely seen an upswing in the upscale U.S. market to Turkey," which translated to a 30% spike in bookings in 2011.
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