The Safe Place To Go

A TV commercial by the Turkish Tourism Ministry has been running on major European networks. It shows a montage of images intended to convey the spirit of Turkey: whirling dervishes, sizzling kebabs, sandy beaches, women in bikinis, diners drinking red wine. But one image lingers longer than the others and appears--twice--in the 20-second spot: a striking gold Byzantine mosaic of Christ. The aim of playing up Turkey's Christian heritage? To convey to potential visitors, as subtly as possible, that though Turkey may be a Muslim country, it's strictly Muslim Lite.

Turkey's tourism industry is booming--in stark contrast to those in other Islamic countries on the Mediterranean. Turkey hosted 11.5 million foreign visitors last year, 61 percent of them from Western Europe, 20 percent from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, and the rest mostly from the United States and other parts of Asia. Over the next decade, Turkey is expected to have the highest growth in tourism for any country in the world: about 10.2 percent annually, compared with a global average of 4.5 percent.

So what are the Turks doing right? Mainly, they are presenting themselves as a Mediterranean country--not a Middle Eastern one. Republic founder Kemal Ataturk first embraced that strategy back in the 1920s, when he dragged Turkey kicking and screaming into the 20th century. He banned Islamic dress, encouraged the drinking of alcohol and generally forced Turkey to become as secular and European as possible. So when mass tourism took off in the 1980s, Turkey had far more in common with its beer-drinking, topless-sunbathing, disco-dancing visitors than its Arab neighbors did. Giant beach resorts like Kemer, in southwest Turkey, might resemble places like Hurghada on the Egyptian Red Sea coast, but they are actually quite different. Whereas visitors to Kemer can easily wander to neighboring towns for a fish dinner (with local wine), guests at Hurghada are guarded against Islamic fundamentalists by armed soldiers and strongly discouraged from leaving the resort. "Hurghada could have been anywhere; there was no sense you were in Egypt," says Mike Heard, an Istanbul-based financial analyst who has been to both. "Kemer felt more relaxed, and safer--the natives didn't look like they hated you."

The Turks are also good at security. They know all too well that a single terrorist attack could wreck their whole tourism industry, which accounts for 10 percent of GDP and employs one person in 16. The first line of defense is nipping radicalism in the bud through a brutally effective secret police. Tourist areas are also swamped with regular police, who conduct spot document checks on migrant workers traveling to the Mediterranean coast to work as waiters and vendors. Badly behaved Turks are summarily arrested, says Celal, a waiter in Antalya who was once locked up after getting drunk at a friend's stag party. "The visitors can be as drunk as they like, but we Turks have to behave if we work in this town," he says.

Now officials are trying to protect the overdeveloped coastline by luring upmarket travelers to see cultural and historical sites, not just the beach. Dozens of Ottoman houses in downtown Istanbul have been restored as boutique hotels. Even former no-go areas in the southeast have become safe since Kurdish separatists declared a ceasefire in 1999; local officials dream of a tourist boom to revive the region's fortunes. One potential problem: the area borders on Iraq. A war there could be the one thing to derail Turkey's tourist boom.