Tourism director underlines country's safety

ravel Weekly Europe editor Kenneth Kiesnoski discussed Turkey's current U.S. advertising campaign and the state of its tourism industry with Levent Demirel, director of the Turkish Tourist Office in New York.

Travel Weekly:It looks like Turkey is spending a fortune on U.S. advertising at a time when Americans are curtailing travel to parts of Europe and the Near and Middle East. Can you put your efforts in perspective?

Demirel: Our tourism minister continues to be very interested in the U.S. market and, in fact, is set to visit the country to contract with tour operators and travel agents.

We're trying to organize at least six top-level meetings with agents in the big markets, such as California, New York and Florida, beginning this month.

Turkish tourism officials have earmarked $6 million this year to lure U.S. travelers to attractions such as Istanbul's Blue Mosque, above. In addition, the tourism ministry has designated $6 million for promotion in the U.S. this year, an increase of 50% over 2001.

TW:But isn't Turkey, as a Muslim nation on the periphery of the Middle East, at a disadvantage in attracting U.S. travelers, given current regional tensions?

Demirel: I don't think so; Turkey is a secular country, and the biggest ally of the U.S. in the region.

Everyone in Turkey is waiting to welcome U.S. visitors, although we know Americans are waiting to see what happens in the Middle East before traveling far [from home].

They should know, however, that we don't have security problems -- and the problem regions are all very far away from Turkey.

I think many Americans do feel that Turkey is a safe destination. As for the others, when they get to know more about the country and misconceptions are disspelled, they will want to go. We always get high marks in customer satisfaction.

TW:How is that reflected in your arrivals figures, for this year and last?

Demirel: We saw a 25% increase in visitors for the first three months of this year. And because we know Americans love Turkey, I think we're going to see an even greater increase before the end of the year; in fact, we doubled our arrivals figures in the last five years -- and I think they will double again.

In 2001 -- even with Sept. 11 -- we exceeded 450,000 U.S. visitors, compared with 550,000 in 2000. But that's still a good figure, given that five years ago, only 150,000 Americans visited.

TW:Many cruise lines abandoned eastern Mediterranean routes after Sept. 11. What's the situation now?

Demirel: After the attacks, I did a survey of cruise lines; most answered that they don't have a problem with Turkey.

I also met with the U.S. ambassador to Turkey, and he said Turkey is one of the safest destinations in the world. I think he also wrote a letter to that effect to the heads of cruise companies. So I believe at least some of them will return; they are very important to us.

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