Balkanalysis.com Editor’s note: in this new interview, Turkish professor and tourism expert Dr. Gülçin Bilgin Turna shares her knowledge and experience of the issues regarding Black Sea tourism development with Balkanalysis.com Director Chris Deliso.
Born in Istanbul in 1981, Dr. Turna received both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Business Administration, with a major in Marketing from Yeditepe University, Istanbul in 2004. She subsequently worked in the corporate marketing department of Anadolubank, and served as a management trainee in Istanbul for two years. She later taught English for three years at Rize’s Bilge Primary School.
Dr. Turna received a scholarship from The Scientific and Technological Research Council for her PhD at Karadeniz Technical University, Trabzon. With the support of European Union-Erasmus Scholarship funds, she studied in Halmstad University, Sweden in 2010 and worked as a visiting researcher in Erasmus University Rotterdam in 2013. She is presently assistant professor at Recep Tayyip Erdogan University in Rize. Dr. Turna has written several research papers about the effects of country image on consumer behavior. Her main research aim is gaining a better understanding of consumer choices in relation to a country’s reputation. Dr. Gülçin Bilgin Turna can be contacted by email at: email@example.com
The Current Tourism Situation, Nationally and Locally
Chris Deliso: Professor Turna, thanks for taking the time to speak with us today.
Gülçin Bilgin Turna: I would like to thank you for your time. I am happy to answer your questions.
CD: Firstly, can you tell us something about the Turkish Black Sea coast, particularly the east, where you are located, and how this differs from other shores of the same sea? What do you like most about the area, which is obviously very different from your home city of Istanbul?
GBT: Rize, the city where I have lived since 2005, and which is located in the east of Turkey’s Black Sea coast, is totally different from my home city of Istanbul. Istanbul is a metropolitan located in the west of Turkey with more than fifteen million inhabitants. It is Turkey’s economic, cultural and historical heart. Rize, on the other hand, is a small city with 330,000 people.
What makes it different and special is that it is highly mountainous which means it has a different climate and lifestyle. What I like most about the area is that we have the combination of Black Sea and high mountains. Virgin nature in different shades of green fascinates the tourists. Tea grows only in Rize in Turkey. The crime rate in the area is low, which makes tourists and inhabitants feel safe. The city center of Rize is small, so it is easy to get around and get things done. Everybody knows each other.
CD: Please tell us more about Recep Tayyip Erdoğan University in general, and particularly the work done on the tourism research topic at your university. What are the objectives of the center, and what kind of research is being done there? Do you think it makes an impact on the policy discussion or tourism development program in your country?
GBT: Our university was founded in 2006. There are various faculties including the faculty of tourism. I work at the department of Business Administration as an assistant professor. We recently founded the “Centre for Black Sea Strategic Studies” in order to cooperate with the countries in the Black Sea, to improve the area economically and culturally, and to come up with scientific research and publications. Attending the symposium in Athens organized by ICBSS and the meeting of Black Sea Universities Network were our first interactions.
Studies at our university are being done not only in the area of tourism, but also in the development of agriculture and fisheries. I cannot be certain about the impact of our center on the policy discussion or tourism development in our country, because our centre is quite young. However, I can say that since our university takes its name from Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whatever we do attract attention from the public and government. There is also a development foundation within our university supported by philanthropists from Rize. They provide scholarships for students and funds for all kinds of research at our university.
CD: In terms of national tourism visitor numbers, you have noted that Turkey is the 6th most-visited country in the world, and 12th among world countries in terms of tourism sector income. And you have noted that among BSEC countries, Turkey is first, ahead of perennial tourism powerhouse Greece. However, are you aware more specifically of what percentage of overall tourism visitors/figures is specific to your region of Turkey? If so, what percentage is it, and how important to the eastern Black Sea economy is tourism presently?
GBT: Yes, Turkey is very successful in international tourism in the world and among BSEC thanks to its Mediterranean, Aegean and Marmara Regions. I am not sure about the exact percentage of overall international tourists in our region of the east Black Sea but I believe it is extremely low.
CD: You have also noted that the Turkish government plans to make ‘a huge leap’ in increasing tourism between now and 2018, and then after that to be sustained at an even level of growth, and that in executing this policy it plans to increase spending. Are you aware of any specific policies in this regard, and if so, what amount of attention is Ankara giving to tourism in your region?
GBT: Yes, Turkey had this leap in the last five years and has plans for the upcoming five years. The general strategy is to build more hotels, improve infrastructure and direct flights from abroad. Foreign tourists enjoy Turkey due to its climate, hospitable people and reasonable prices. I believe Turkey will be successful in its tourism plans. About the development of tourism in our region, certain areas were chosen as priority regions. In particular, Ayder, Anzer, Ovit and Kuspa are the four areas chosen to be improved in tourism by our government. They will build a ski resort on Ayder Mountain.
CD: Given the current uncertainties in the region such as instability in Syria and Iraq, and recent violence in southeastern Turkey, do you think the government will fail to make this ‘huge leap’ come true? Or is it also possible that the Black Sea area, being far from any of these crisis zones, could possibly benefit in comparison with other parts of the country in terms of visitor numbers?
GBT: Turkey had been struggling with terrorism in southeastern Turkey for many years. Given the current uncertainties in Syria and Iraq, tourism numbers decreased in southeastern Turkey, but not in other regions. The other regions of Turkey are very safe. X-ray machines are operated both in the entrance of airports and shopping malls. I don’t think that the crisis in southeast of Turkey affect the tourism in Black Sea area.
Challenges and Solutions
CD: You have mentioned that Rize tourism professionals could use some insight and experience from Turkish tour operators and other professionals who come from the far more popular Aegean and Mediterranean coastal areas. What kind of insights or knowledge do you think they could provide? And, considering the very different physical conditions and appeal of the two areas, how relevant would the input of those persons be?
GBT: They could provide their general knowledge in the area of tourism. We can never be sure until we consult them. I believe it is worth the effort. They and local tourism authorities may form synergies.
CD: So, mentioning Turkey’s warmer coasts and seas brings us to the hard question: to be brutally honest, why should someone go to the frequently stormy, cold and dark Black Sea when they have those other enticing options? Or are you looking for a different kind of tourist profile altogether?
GBT: The Black Sea is not cold; it has more of a tropical climate. And when you swim in the Black Sea in summer, you don’t feel cold at all. However, there are no beaches suitable for international tourists. You can experience different weather by the coast and in the mountains. It is stormy only in winter. The problem in our area is the scarcity of land. The number of hotels is not sufficient.
So, first the infrastructure and bed capacity should be improved. The Black Sea does not offer nice beaches and nightlife like the Mediterranean does. The Black Sea, especially in the east, is famous for its high and mystic mountains, so people think that the Black Sea region is something totally different. Given its traditional values, the region does not offer the same type of entertainment as other areas do. So yes, different kinds of tourists visit our area. Mostly adventurers (sports and hiking) and tourists, who like the rain and fog in the mountains, trying to escape from the very hot weather elsewhere in Turkey, visit the Black Sea.
CD: You have said that Rize and Black Sea tourism professionals need more language skills. What is the current level of English or other foreign languages spoken there? Should an independent foreign visitor expect to get by without speaking Turkish, or would it be difficult?
GBT: Hotel receptionists and tour guides can speak English, however local people cannot. Yes, unfortunately it would be difficult for an independent visitor to get around without speaking Turkish. But I’m sure all the locals will try to help using body language and talking Turkish very loudly, heh heh. The local government provides free English courses for all the professionals.
CD: What is the situation in Rize for local and foreign companies that want to get involved in the tourism sector? Is the bureaucracy difficult, and if so are they working to fix this? What is the balance of different responsibilities and power shared by local or national authorities, for example, with regards to giving permissions to build, collection of taxes, regulation of tourist activities and so on?
GBT: To the best of my knowledge, the bureaucracy is not difficult. Government provides incentives for investors. However, due to the scarcity, it is very expensive to buy land in Rize. That is the problem.
Local Activities and Initiatives
CD: You have pointed out that Rize will increase its offerings of health tourism and some culture/history tourism, as well as outdoor sports like hiking, rafting and heli-skiing. Can you give us some more specific details about these plans and these attractions and where readers can learn more about what is available?
GBT: There are spa hotels in Ridos and Ayder. There are many hiking, rafting and off-roading clubs. These clubs address Turkish tourists; there are no websites available in English as far as I know. But once the foreign tourists are in the area, they can benefit from all these activities. Heli-skiing, on the other hand, totally targets foreign tourists, especially French. Many websites in English are available.
CD: I have seen in other parts of Turkey, such as the Taurus Mountains to Egirdir, the popularity for European hikers of the St Paul Trail. Are there any historic or symbolic hiking trails in the Rize area that can be exploited in such a way, maybe creating linkages with other areas of Turkey or neighboring countries like Georgia or Armenia?
GBT: Yes, it is “Kaçkar Mountain Trails”. Armenians and Georgians settled early in the Pontic Alps, now the Kaçkar, later building wonderful stone monastery churches hidden in the mountains. The Turks gradually occupied the area from the 11th century but the area remained ethnically mixed; Turkish, Hemşin and Laz languages are still used. More information about the trail can be found on the Internet.
CD: On the sub-regional level, what does Rize have to offer in particular, compared to other Turkish Black Sea coastal towns like Trabzon or Samsun? Is there anything specific to Rize that cannot be found in other coastal towns in Turkey?
GBT: Trabzon and Samsun are big and industrialized cities. Rize is more agricultural. Rize is small, more mountainous and natural, people are more hospitable. Tea and kiwi grow here.
CD: Can you say at the present time, what kind of tourists are you seeing most in your region? I mean, whether independent or package tourists, from what countries, what ages and so on? And, do you have any data or other information on how do these tourists find out about the area and decide to visit, compared to any other part of Turkey they could go?
GBT: As far as I have observed, independent tourists are from Europe; package tourists are from Arabia. They are usually middle-aged. Independent tourists find about the area by their guidebooks. An American friend of mine followed the route her travel guide offered. She flew to Trabzon from Istanbul, went to Kackar Mountain Trail, and then to Sumela Monastery. She went to Cappadocia and the Lycian Way afterwards. Visitors to the Mediterranean are usually package tourists, and people who want to visit Istanbul can find a lot of information online.
CD: In terms of the cultural tourism aspect, what is the current situation of the historic minorities of the mountains, mentioned in the Byzantine and Ottoman sources, people such as the Laz and Tzan? Are they integrated in any way yet into the tourism offering of the area, and do you seem them playing any role in the future in increasing the interest value of the area?
GBT: I have never heard Tzan. Laz and Hemşin people have their own language. It is only spoken. They are very nice people and integrated into the tourism offering of the area. They have a different life style and clothing style which increase the interest value of the area.
CD: What about the region’s main attraction for foreign visitors- the Byzantine cave monastery of Sumela, in the forests near Trabzon? When I visited a few years ago, I recall the frescoes being in a precarious state, with graffiti scrawled across them. Do you know of any restoration plans, and how does this medieval attraction play into your region’s future tourism strategy?
GBT: Whenever I have visited Sumela in the last five years, it was being restored. Sumela Monastery is the most attractive tourism value in our area and I am sure it will keep its importance in the future.
Infrastructure Development Plans
CD: Regarding infrastructure and the wider region, I understand that a proposed Black Sea Ring Highway will be built, a four-lane motorway some 7100km in length, to connect the various countries along the coast. Do you have any news about the state of this project and when it might be completed, as well any idea how it will affect the visibility and economy of Rize and the eastern Black Sea coast?
GBT: I am not sure when it will be completed by all the neighboring countries. Turkey’s side of the highway is finished. From Samsun to Artvin-Georgia border (from mid- to east-Black Sea Region). The highway is along the coast, which may sound convenient; however, that is one of the reasons we do not have nice beaches along the coast. For example, I live by the seaside in Rize and I have to listen to the sounds of cars and trucks because there is a highway in front of my apartment.
When the ring road is completed, all the areas will benefit from this for sure. There is also another project in Turkey called “Green Road” which will connect all the plateaus in our area (from Samsun to Artvin). The road will allow tourists to visit all the plateaus easily; they do not need to go to the city center every time they want to visit a plateau. The density of the population is really high in the city center of Rize, so at the moment tourists may not enjoy the city center but the mountains. On the other hand, the locals in the mountains are not looking forward to the “Green Road” project because they are afraid they will lose their privacy. They do not want their nature to be destroyed.
CD: Again about infrastructure, I recall that it was a bit complex getting to Georgia from Trabzon and the Turkish Black Sea, requiring multiple changes of bus and minibus just to get to Batumi. How is the situation now? Are there any improvements, or is still mostly a route used by locals?
GBT: It is not complex anymore. People can go to Georgia by one bus. We [Turkish citizens] don’t need a passport to go to Georgia which makes traveling more appealing for us.
CD: We have also heard about a maritime highway plan for Black Sea ferries, but there is less information. Do you have some further information on this, and how it could affect Rize and other Black Sea ports?
GBT: I also have little information on that. I know that from Samsun, people can travel to Batumi (Georgia) and Novorossiysk (Russia); from Trabzon to Sochi (Russia); from Istanbul to almost all destinations in the Black Sea region. In Rize we do not have a suitable international port for cruise ships. Trabzon, our neighbor city, benefits from this. I believe both the highway and maritime highway plans will be beneficial economically for all BSEC member countries.
CD: At the current moment, are there any ferries from Rize, or else Trabzon, to other points on the Turkish or international parts of the Black Sea coast? If so, is this something that presents or will present a nice opportunity for tourists?
GBT: Unfortunately there is no ferry from Rize or Trabzon. Trabzon hosted some cruise ships during summer. If you want to travel from Istanbul to Trabzon by ferry, it is not possible. People prefer airlines. It is a 1.5-hour flight from Istanbul to Trabzon and it is extremely convenient, at reasonable prices. The interesting thing in our area is not the city center (the coast is the city center), it is the mountains that attract tourists’ attention to the area. So they would not prefer traveling by ferry.
CD: Back on land: in regards to the planned Baku-Tbilisi-Kars rail route, a part of the ‘new Silk Road.’ Kars of course is inland and east of Rize. But is there any chance the existence of such a line could benefit tourism in the Black Sea, given the geographical challenges and existing infrastructure, is this of any relevance to your area’s tourism development?
GBT: Some 76 km of the 180-km rail road pass through Turkey. Once the “Marmaray Project” and “New Silk Road” are finished, it will be easy to transport goods from Europe to China directly. These are very big projects. Once the railroad connects Rize, then we can benefit from it. For now, I do not think we can benefit from the “New Silk Road”.
However, Rize will benefit from another project called “Mount Ovit Tunnel” very soon; it connects Erzurum and Rize. It is said that it will be Turkey’s longest, and the world’s 4th longest tunnel. Also there is another project, the “Rize-Mardin Highway” that connects the north of Turkey to the south. I believe the abovementioned “Green Road” that connects the plateaus will be the most beneficial for the tourism in the East Black Sea of Turkey. Once it is finished, I hope both visitors and locals will be happy about it.
CD: Finally, the town of Rize is served by air from nearby Trabzon Airport. Can you tell us how this airport’s capacity is developing now and the coming years, with expansion of budget flights and other operators Turkish and foreign alike?
GBT: Trabzon Airport is developing over the years at a rate of 10 percent. People from Artvin, Rize, Bayburt and Giresun also benefit from this airport. Three million people flew from this airport last year. Turkey’s main operator, Turkish Airlines, and Pegasus, which provides low cost flights, fly to Trabzon Airport. There are direct flights from Germany to Trabzon in summer. By the way, an airport will be built in Rize in three years.
CD: Dr. Turna, thanks very much for your time and good luck with your work in working towards tourism development on the Black Sea coast.
GBT: Thank you very much.