Ambassador's Speech at the Symposium Titled “Mobility and Travel: Overcoming Travel Barriers”

Kerim Uras 28.03.2012
Minister Yeroulanos,
Minister Dollis,
Secretary General Rifai,
Secretary General of GNTO,
Distinguished participants,
Ladies and gentlemen,

On the very outset, I would like to convey the message of strong support of our Minister of Culture and Tourism, Mr. Ertuğrul Günay. He sent his best wishes to Minister Yeroulanos and emphasized that Turkey is ready to help and cooperate on culture and tourism, in any way it can.

May I join my Minister in conveying my gratitude to the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of the Hellenic Republic for organizing this significant event. I deem it a privilege to have the opportunity to address this distinguished audience, on an important issue both for Turkey and Greece.

I am fully convinced that this Symposium is very timely. Given the fact that Turkey and Greece have achieved a record level in bilateral tourism last year, it is high time to discuss the means to further our bilateral tourism potential as well as to explore new avenues to work together in the global market.

Tourism, being based on services, is a dynamic field which creates employment by its very nature. Thus, It is a crucial pillar of development and it supports sustainable growth. This is important during times of economic stagnation and when the prospect of a global crisis is looming.

Tourism is also an important platform for people-to-people contact. These contacts are important in developing a better understanding of “the other”. As a diplomat I feel this every day; Tourism has become an inextricable link of public diplomacy and a means of direct communication, in this era of globalization.

Direct contacts are particularly relevant in complex relationships such as that between Greece and Turkey. Our peoples gain much from these contacts and they once again realize how much we really have in common. We must continue to make best use of tourism as an effective tool of further developing mutual understanding between our nations and cultures, which is of utmost importance in the big picture of things and in furthering tolerance, harmony and lasting peace.

Distinguished participants,
Ladies and gentlemen,

Last year, we achieved a stunning performance on the tourism front, on both sides of the Aegean.

The sector has turned out to be a locomotive for the Greek economy, as it is going through a difficult period. Good old tourism once again proved to be the source of good news in Greece. Last year, 16,5 million tourists from around the world visited this beautiful country. Thus, Greece has exceeded the famous record level of the year 2007. The sector surpassed a contribution of 10 billion Euros to the Greek GDP. Despite some conflicting signals at the early stage, I am confident this success will continue this year too. Indeed, according to today’s news, the Greek trade deficit is down % 20 in January and Greek exports are up % 37 in 2011. These are strong indicators.

Turkey, enjoyed a similar increase in tourism last year. Non-residential arrivals reached 32 million. This is also a record for us. Tourism revenues reached around 20 billion Euros. Turkey is branching out into other sub-sectors of tourism, such as mountain, religion, congress, golf and health tourism to name a few.

I do not want to steal the thunder of Dr. Temel Kotil, General Manager of Turkish Airlines who will speak this afternoon, but let me just say that Istanbul has become a regional air hub with daily flights to many long-haul destinations.

On the bilateral level, in 2011, 700 thousands Greeks visited Turkey, while around 550 thousands Turks visited Greece. For Turks coming to Greece, this reflected a % 180 increase in 2010 and a % 50 increase in 2011.

However; although these are impressive figures compared to previous years, I see the current level of tourism between our countries far from reflecting the real potential.

I strongly believe that it is within our grasp to surpass the threshold of 1 million Turkish tourists visiting Greece by 2015. I strongly believe that the future of Greek tourism lies in the East.

But to attain this goal, the key is to overcome the visa barriers. To be honest, as a candidate country to the European Union, which is the sixth largest economy in Europe and the 16th in the world, it is difficult to understand the reasoning behind the ongoing visa requirement for Turkish citizens, while citizens from much lesser economies can travel visa free within the EU.

Turkey’s economic performance crowned by a high growth rate for the past decade, sometimes even surpassing % 10, amidst a global crisis, proves that Turkey is a solid economy, that it has a high purchasing power and that it no longer poses any threat of immigration to Europe. On the contrary, Turkey has become a center of attraction for foreign business and professionals. Our Embassy gets tens of applications every day from Greek companies wanting to set up business in Turkey, mainly Istanbul, which we very much encourage ofcourse.

We must also bear in mind that illegal immigrants do not respect visas, passport formalities or borders. To give you an idea, we apprehended 30 thousand immigrants last year alone and 850 thousand immigrants and 12 thousand human smugglers in the last 15 years. We are determined to jointly continue our efforts and we are fully aware that if we didn’t, the trickle we see today would soon become a flood. This is not in our interest. But, despite our every effort, unfortunately illegal immigrants find ways to overcome our measures and enter the EU. This proves that, visas are not much of an obstacle in that sense. As previous speakers rightly indicated, visas only prevent bona fide travelers from coming to Greece and contributing to the economy. On the other hand, abolishing visas for Turkey would result in an alignment of our visa systems and this would help combating illegal immigration further to the East.

The visa obstacle is a real and practical issue. In a simplified version, a Turkish family, spending their holiday along the Aegean coastline in Turkey cannot even visit the closest Greek island without obtaining a visa, despite the fact that in some occasions the cars on those islands are visible with bare eyes. Elimination of this barrier will mean a huge net earning for the Greek tourism sector.

It is now high time to build on successful examples: In May 2010, during the visit of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey and Greece agreed to abolish the visa requirement for the bearers of special (green) passports. The decision came into force in August 2010 and the number of the Turkish tourists visiting Greece increased by % 180 within a few of months. If we apply the same procedure for ordinary passports, this number would be much higher.

Needless to mention, the removal of visas would also have a multiplying effect on our economic, trade and investment relations. I know from first hand experience that Turkish businessmen are deterred from investment in Greece, mainly because of the visa obstacle. There is strong potential for investment in the tourism field. It is impossible to quantify the damage this does to the Greek economy, because a lot of business simply does not materialize and there is no benchmark from which to make a comparison for something that has not happened.

Of course we understand the difficulties of the Schengen System and that all participants have to agree on a common course. But a way out must be found. It is a widespread belief in Turkey, that Greece is fully aware of the advantages of abolishing the visa for Turkish citizens, but that the visa obstacle is maintained as a tool of unfair competition by some other large EU economies against the strong and growing Turkish economy.

Anyhow, I believe Greece and Turkey have a common denominator here. Eliminating the visa barrier would undoubtedly bring us closer together, serving our mutual interest.

Distinguished participants,
Ladies and gentlemen,

Cooperating on tourism from long-haul destinations is another fertile field for our two countries. I firmly believe that we can work together to attract more tourists from far away destinations such as the USA, Brazil, China, Japan, Canada, Korea and Australia, by offering “one trip-two countries” package tours. We have daily flights to and from these destinations.

Turkey and Greece as two important tourism destinations in the Eastern Mediterranean have a lot to jointly offer to travelers from distant lands. Because the plane ticket is expensive and the flight tiresome, it makes very good sense for these long-haul tourists to see as much as they can while in our part of the world. It would surely make our destinations much more attractive and beneficial for both countries tourism sectors.

We could create a common marketing strategy, targeting far away destinations to promote joint tours. Through joint campaigns, we could advertise İstanbul and Athens, İzmir and Thessaloniki, Bodrum-Kos and Crete, Marmaris and Rhodes, Çeşme and Chios, Ayvalık and Lesvos together, to name just a few. We could encourage our tourism agencies to establish joint ventures and operate as partners. Our Embassies also have a role to play in this field.

In fact, we have already done some good work in this field, such as in China. The Protocol of the Third Session of the Turkish-Greek Joint Tourism Committee, which was held in Athens on 12 October 2011, signed by Minister Yeroulanos and Günay, states that “both sides will further encourage the activities of their private sectors, concerning the promotion and elaboration of common products in the field of historical, natural and cultural heritage as a combined tourist package for long-haul destinations”.

Our Ministers have paved the way and some initial movement has already happened. It is now high time for us all to work together to build upon this progress. We intend to jointly turn the Aegean Sea and its hinterland into the prime destination in the world.

Speaking about tourism and cultural heritage, I would like to emphasize the importance of preserving our cultural heritage and historical sites, which signify the common history of our countries and the togetherness of our peoples, going back centuries. On behalf of my country, I would like to reiterate our readiness to further develop a concrete strategy of cooperation for the protection and recovery of our historical artifacts.

Before I conclude, I would like to thank the Ministry of Culture and Tourism once again for inviting me to this event. I am convinced that today’s Symposium will provide a fresh impetus for new prospects to strengthen the tourism cooperation between our countries, also to the benefit of our region.
Thank you.


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