Turkey Enjoys Record Visitor Numbers

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Reed Travel Features

ISTANBUL, Turkey -- Turkey has enjoyed a meteoric rise in inbound tourism. Consider that in 1986 the country welcomed 2.4 million visitors, and in 1996 the count had increased to 8.6 million. Last year set a record with 326,000 U.S. tourists visiting Turkey, a 12.39% increase over 1995, and this year, visitor figures are already 10% above 1996.

Most U.S. travelers arrive on cruise port calls, stopping at natural harbors such as Kusadasi and Fethiye on an Aegean Sea routing that includes calls in Greece. Then, two or three years later, they are back for a closer and longer look, which most often means Istanbul first, followed by the Cappadocia region and the ancient Greco-Roman cities of the Aegean coast. Also of special appeal to the U.S. traveler are cruises along the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts aboard traditional Turkish gulets.

Travelers returning from Turkey -- and most Americans travel on an FIT basis, rather than with escorted tours -- report what those preceding them already knew: Here is one of the world's most interesting, rewarding and, in most areas, affordable destinations.

Although the Europeans come for sun and sea, what attracts the American leisure traveler, according to the Turkish Tourism Office, is Turkey's cultural and historical attractions.

From Hittite and Assyrian to Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine culture, each group has left relics that can be found in many corners of the country. "Most important to us is that people are coming back from Turkey happy," said Selami Karaibrahimgil, director of the Turkish Tourism Office in New York. "The word-of-mouth promotion is more important than any amount of advertising we can do."

Visitor satisfaction, according to Karaibrahimgil, comes in part from the high-quality hotels. "Tourism came late to Turkey," he said, "and beautiful, high-standard hotels have been built within the last decade, particularly in Istanbul and along the Mediterranean coast."

* Istanbul, straddling Europe and Asia on the shores of the Bosphorus, was the capital of successive empires (Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman); its most famous sights today include the Hagia Sofia Mosque, originally a Christian basilica and now a museum; the Islamic architectural jewels -- the Blue Mosque with its six minarets, and the Mosque of Suleiman the Magnificent -- and Topkapi Palace, an opulent preserve housing a fine collection of Ottoman artifacts, as well as the imperial jewels and holy relics. The Covered Bazaar, the world's largest covered market and its oldest shopping mall, shelters some 4,000 shops piled high with carpets, gold and silver works, copper and leather goods.

* Ephesus, a well-preserved classical city on the Mediterranean, offers a stroll through splendid Greco-Roman ruins. This was also a center of early Christian activity: St. Paul lived here and the 24,000-seat amphitheater where he was arrested is still intact; the apostle John is believed buried under the ruins of a sixth century cathedral.

* Cappadocia, in Central Anatolia, sits in a dreamscape of bizarre rock formations. These, in turn, are honeycombed with cave-like houses dating back to the fifth century and Byzantine churches hollowed from the rock, such as those at Goreme, whose tombs and frescoes are still intact.

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