In Istanbul, visitors from Iran show up their European counterparts - they have money to spend, and they don’t create trouble.
A man dressed up as Hajji Firuz, the embodiment of the Iranian new year, waits at Istanbul Airport to greet arrivals from Tehran.
As the Nowruz holiday which marks the new year in Iran got under way, the Turkish tourist industry geared in the hope of receiving record numbers of visitors.
The first Nowruz tourists from Iran arrived in two planeloads in Istanbul early on March 18, three days before the turn of the solar year. Many said shopping was their number one priority, among them a young woman who removed her headscarf to get into the holiday mood and said she planned to take a tour of the Bosphorus as well as the new malls that have sprung up in Istanbul.
Another traveller, Nafisa, had come with her sister and parents.
“On previous holidays we travelled to Malaysia, Singapore, China and other Asian countries. Then we heard nice things about Turkey and decided to come here,” she said.
This year, the Association of Turkish Travel Agencies put on a special “Istanbul Shopping Fest” targeting Iranians coming for Nowruz. (For more on the festival and its significance, see New Year Shopping in Iran.)
Coming several weeks before Europeans take an Easter break, the Iranian festival offers Turkey a welcome influx of visitors during an otherwise quiet season.
Azade Doci, who runs an Istanbul travel agency, said business was up this year.
“We’ve seen a doubling of demand from Iran compared with Nowruz last year,” Doci said.
The increase reflects a general rise in tourist numbers from Iran. The Turkish tourism ministry says close to two million Iranians visited in 2010, a 400 per cent increase on the year 2000 and seven per cent of the numbers from all countries. If the trend so far in 2011 holds up, Iran will join Germany, Russia and Britain as the principal sources of foreign tourists.
Although the Germans have been coming for years in large numbers - 4.4 million of them in 2010 - Iranians tend to spend more on accommodation, food and purchases than the average European seeking a budget holiday.
There are many factors at play. The Turkish tourism ministry ascribes the surge in visitors to visa-free travel, the greater availability of flights, diversification into mountain holidays, health and cultural tours, and its own advertising campaigns. Turkish Airlines began flights to Shiraz this month, adding to existing connections with Tehran, Mashhad and Tabriz.
Turkey’s image among Iranians and also Arabs has been boosted by the AKP government and its more active foreign policy, as well as by popular Turkish TV serials.
In the end, though, tourist industry insiders in Turkey say that what really draws the Iranians in is the shopping, especially since many international brand companies have opened shops in Istanbul in recent years.
Iranians also go to resorts like Antalya, Bodrum and Kuşadasi on the Mediterranean coast. They do not seem to mind the crowds, the nightlife or the wild party atmosphere. But the stereotype of Iranian women coming to Turkey to enjoy the freedom to ditch the hejab and switch to a bikini is not wholly accurate; many remain easily recognisable in the headscarves and long coats they would wear back Tehran.
Iranian tourists are well-liked, not just because they are big spenders but because they are polite and rarely make trouble. They generally travel as families, not as gaggles of friends, and a loud, drunk Iranian would be highly unusual sight.
Ayla Albayrak is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul.
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