x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Taking to Turkey, a top destination among Arabs

I set off on my Anatolian adventure, only to find out that many other Arabs had the same idea, too.

After enjoying a brief Eid Al Fitr with my family, I decided to make the most of the rest of the holiday with a trip abroad. The arduous and expensive process of obtaining a visa to enter most European countries put me off, until I realised that there was still a way to make it to the continent without spending a single second in an embassy's waiting room – I could visit Turkey.

With the visa-on-arrival option, Turkish friends in Istanbul and numerous, glowing reviews of the city (and other parts of the country), it was an easy choice, really.

So, with only my passport and backpack, I set off on my Anatolian adventure.

But it soon became apparent that many other Arabs had the same idea.

The relatively short flight to Istanbul, which was overflowing with Arab families, including many Emiratis, was only the tip of the iceberg. From the moment I hit the narrow, crowded streets of the beautiful historic city, I could hear Arabic being spoken on almost every corner. Women clad in abayas and men in kanduras were a common sight everywhere I went. And at all the tourist spots, Khaleeji families – some of them with up to eight members – huddled together while trying to navigate Istanbul's windy roads.

When I asked one of my Turkish hosts whether the Arab influx was an anomaly, he replied: "In the past couple of years, you guys have been everywhere."

Besides the obvious draws, such as cooler weather and the proximity, the trend seems to have been triggered by other reasons, too.

The Arab tourist wave apparently originated with the coming to power of the Justice and Development Party, also called the AKP, whose Islamic leanings have led to improved ties with the Arab world and, subsequently, less rigid visa procedures for several countries in the region.

Also adding to Istanbul's appeal is its intriguing mix of East and West. Arab visitors can experience the familiar aspects of life in a Muslim country, such as the wide availability of halal food and the sight of women in shaylas or abayas, all in a Western setting.

The rise in the number of Arabs visiting Turkey can also be attributed to the recent tourism slowdown in other countries in the region, such as Tunisia and Syria.

On a more superficial level, but of no less significance, is increased Arab interest in Turkey's soap operas.

These shows not only draw millions of Middle Eastern families to their TV screens but also to the locations they are filmed in. Alongside important Ottoman and Byzantine historic sites, such as the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, the filming locations and even the mansions of soap opera actors are now popular tourist spots.

The former Ottoman capital, which is home to 13.5 million residents, receives no fewer than seven million visitors annually, making it one of the top 10 tourist destinations in the world. With more and more Arabs contributing to this number every year, Istanbul seems set to become one of the top destinations on their list of must-visit places.

The writer is a reporter for The National's news desk