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Angst In Antalya: Russians Nix Their Turkish Vacations

"Kremlin kitsch" -- a lot of businesses in the tourist resort of Antalya on the Turkish Riviera go to considerable lengths to make Russians feel at home.

ANTALYA, Turkey -- More than 300 glitzy, five-star hotels hug the sunbaked coast in this Mediterranean resort city, catering to the millions of Russian tourists who flock here every year.

Opposite Antalya's swanky hotels, and across the spotless roads flanked by orange trees, are rows of newly built, multistory malls, cafes, and sparkling jewelry stores all aimed at making a living off the Russian guests.

But on this day in early December, the hotels and the shops are virtually deserted. Most of the shop owners are lounging outside on wooden chairs, soaking up the sun with cigarette and coffee in hand.

In one of the coffee shops sits Tolga Baris, a 32-year-old sales and marketing manager whose job it is to fill eight luxury hotels.

But there's only so much that he and his Limak Hotels group can do in the face of the latest threat to business: Kremlin bans that keep Russian holidaymakers away from Turkey in response to the downing by Turkey last month of a Russian bomber near the Syrian border.

"Without Russian tourists, tourism is not tourism," Baris, a tall, energetic man, says as he sips his tea. He points across the street toward the rows of flashy souvenir shops and fur and leather retailers that are usually teeming with Russian tourists. "You see, it's all empty."

Turkish sales and marketing manager Tolga Baris
Turkish sales and marketing manager Tolga Baris

Baris says that even in this off-peak season, around 2,000 people have already canceled their November-December bookings with Limak since the November 24 incident.

"I planned to go to Moscow to visit two travel agencies, but now there's no reason to go there," Baris says as he fidgets with his mobile phone.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's executive order "on measures to ensure Russia's national security and protection of Russian citizens...[and] the application of special economic measures against Turkey" was issued four days after the bomber was shot down by a Turkish air-to-air missile. Aside from a handful of employment, entrepreneurial, and visa bans on Turkish nationals in Russia, it orders Russian travel agents to "suspend the sale to Russian citizens of products that envisage visiting the territory of the Turkish Republic" and orders the government to roll out a ban on charter flights between the two countries.

PHOTO GALLERY: Antalya Without Russian Tourists

If Russian tourist numbers don't pick up by the peak summer months, warns Baris, the tourism industry here in Antalya will be in "real crisis."

But with the heated rhetoric between Ankara and Moscow continuing, there is no sign of an early detente.

"Plans B and C," the Istanbul native says, entail seeking sales to Western Europeans or, if that fails, tapping into holiday markets among former Soviet republics like Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine, all of which have their own sea coasts.

For decades, Antalya's sandy beaches and warm temperatures have attracted Russians, and easy access by air and visa-free travel has helped seal the deal. The area boasts the Moscow-themed World Of Wonders Kremlin Palace hotel, Konyaalti's Matryoshka Park with its oversized Russian nesting dolls, and the Mamma Ruski.

Turkey is the most popular foreign holiday destination for Russians, with 3.3 million traveling there in the first nine months of this year, according to government figures.

The vast majority of them are bound for this strip of coastline shielded by the Taurus Mountains to the north and abutting the eastern Mediterranean, where Russian tourists contribute some $6 billion to Antalya's economy every year. Nationally, tourism generated about $21 billion for Turkey from January to September.

'Big Loss'

Akay Can Dagkiran, the 37-year-old owner of Motto Cafe, a restaurant chain in Antalya, stands at his bar gazing out at empty seats. He says his eatery, situated near a long row of flashy, five-star hotels, should be teeming with Russian tourists. But on this day, it is mostly filled with employees.

"Most of our customers and most of the tourists in this area are from Russia," Dagkiran says over the blare of Turkish music. "Of course they're very important to us, because more than 50 percent of visitors to Antalya are Russians."

Dagkiran, a natty and spirited man, says that even low seasons in the past featured a steady stream of customers. But now, he says, there is "absolutely no Russian tourists" and sagging demand has forced him to temporarily shut down one of his restaurants.

"We have menus in Russian. We are educating our staff to serve Russians, so we send them to classes to learn Russian," Dagkiran says. "Everything depends on Russian tourists."

Infographic: How Important Is Russian Tourism For Turkey?

Click here to see full infographic

The number of Russian tourists in Turkey was already in decline due, at least in part, to the stalling Russian economy, the plight of the ruble, and Russians' waning purchasing power.

Dagkiran says wearily that forecasts, as well as what he's hearing from travel agencies, hotel managers, and other authorities, all suggest that the 2016 tourism season "will be a big loss."

Meanwhile, Russian travel agencies have been warned that any of them caught selling Turkish tours will face sanctions.

For Gazi Demir, a sales representative at Mudem Tour, a travel agency in Antalya, the spat between Moscow and Ankara has brought his business to a "standstill."

Demir, flanked by his wife and colleague, says his business -- which organizes tours, sells plane tickets, and books hotels -- has not logged a single booking in the past three weeks. By this time last year, he says, he had already sold more than 200 holiday packages to Russians bound for Antalya and its exotic New Year's celebrations.

"Eighty percent of this business is tied to Russian tourists," Demir, who has worked in the tourism industry for over 20 years, says as he takes off his glasses and rubs his eyes. "We are all concerned about the future."

Demir, a tall, middle-aged man with locks of brown hair, is already considering markets that could replace Russia, including Middle Eastern countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. But even those new markets can't replace Russian tourists, he says, for whom the "infrastructure of Antalya has been built."

Too Soon To Say?

Not all Turkish entrepreneurs are convinced that Russia should be written off.

"Antalya is made for Russians," says Ahmet Hamdi Karagoz, the owner of the Olbia Hotel, a longtime fixture in Antalya.

He says the area's tourist infrastructure, its proximity to Moscow -- just a 2 1/2-hour flight -- and the two countries' visa-free relations have made the resort city "perfect" for Russians.

A stern-faced, confident man, Karagoz says he expects the tensions between Ankara and Moscow to subside, adding that the two countries are "deeply connected."

In fact, there are 70,000 Russian-speaking expatriates in Turkey, many of whom work in the tourism industry. They, too, are facing fallout from Moscow's punitive measures against Ankara.

"It's a low season, so we are only feeling a bit of the effect," Yulia, a Russian-speaking Ukrainian, says under the red glow of the family-run Scorpio Russian restaurant's neon lights.

But even this 10-year-old restaurant, which is popular with Turks and Russian expats but also relies on Russian tourists, is feeling the pinch in recent weeks.

Yulia says if Russians tourists stay away for a lot longer, Scorpio Russian will "obviously feel it."

Antalya's historical old town is normally a magnet for tourists, its narrow streets crammed with visitors swarming through the fruit and souvenir bazaars. The main square is often surrounded by buses and taxis and crowded with stalls selling day tours. Down at the harbor, dozens of bright, white yachts line the docks, where colorful cruise boats are normally packed full of tourists. But on this day, there are few holidaymakers around.

One of them is Natalya, a Muscovite accompanied by her mother. They are among the dwindling ranks of Russians who have braved government warnings to come to Antalya, where she has already visited three times.

"I don't care about the politics," Natalya says, taking off her sunglasses. "I've been coming here for years. Even if they ban travel from Russia to Turkey, I will find another way to come here."

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the regional desk editor for Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2012, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.