Trade in Turkey, Egypt and Tunisia has suffered in recent years, but as Katherine Lawrey explains, British travellers are returning in droves
Guaranteed sunshine, varied cultures and great value have drawn British holidaymakers to Turkey, Egypt and Tunisia for decades. All three have had a challenging ride since 2015, when terrorist attacks or political unrest triggered Foreign Office warnings and tourist numbers fell. After a low point in 2016, trade began to pick up last year and, barring any major incidents, this summer should see all three grow their share of overseas travellers.
The Turkish coastline offers golden beaches, day trips into the mountains and resort cities with buzzing nightlife and bazaars. Flights to Antalya, Bodrum and Dalaman access the Turquoise Coast, while Izmir is the gateway to the Aegean Coast and Ephesus, one of the ancient world’s greatest cities. This is without mentioning glittering Istanbul, the only city in the world to span two continents. None are covered by the Foreign Office advice which warns against travel only to areas near the Syrian border. For the rest of Turkey, tourists are advised to carry their passport and visa ready for ID checks, which have increased since a failed coup in 2016.
After a high of 2.5 million in 2014, UK arrivals to Turkey fell to about 1.7 million in 2016. There were signs of recovery in 2017, with almost 1.8 million UK arrivals. Recent figures from market research company GfK show UK bookings to Turkey up 80 per cent year on year.
The Foreign Office warns about the high terrorist threat in Turkey in common with many other destinations, such as France and Germany, but acknowledges the Turkish government has tightened security. After the fall in sterling, UK tour operators have seized the opportunity of adding thousands of extra flight seats to Turkey, where accommodation is plentiful and cheap. With these factors combined, Turkey is expected to see the biggest bounce.
Chris Mottershead, Thomas Cook’s UK managing director, says: “It’s still early days but Turkey, Egypt and Tunisia are selling well in the UK. We’re anticipating bookings to Turkey for this summer to get close to 2015 levels. Turkey appeals to those who are looking for good value and high quality. Interestingly, it has a higher rebook rate than any of our main-market destinations.”
It’s a similar story at Classic Collection Holidays. Gary Boyer, head of purchasing, says: “Combined actual sales across all seasons currently on sale – summer 2018 and winter 18/19 – sees Turkey ahead by 67 per cent. “It’s the most encouraging statistic that we’ve had for some time, and a sign that there is significant renewed demand for the destination,” he adds. “We have continued to promote Turkey via the travel trade – 90 per cent of our sales are through the trade – with our dedicated Turkey brochure for 2018.”
The adventure travel market is also showing signs of recovery, with both G Adventures and Intrepid reporting that forward bookings have increased by at least 100 per cent year-on-year.
Intrepid has six dedicated touring itineraries in Turkey, plus a family holiday for teenagers in laid-back beachside Fethiye. Jenny Gray, product manager of Africa and the Middle East, Intrepid says: “Turkey has stunning coastlines, treasure troves of ruins and cosmopolitan cities that contrast with the ancient landscapes and hidden bazaars. It’s a destination that has much to be explored on an affordable budget and travellers are becoming ever more curious to see what it has to offer.”
G Adventures has a 15-day Absolute Turkey itinerary and a 12-day Multisport itinerary, with Brian Young, managing director, Europe, Middle East and Africa declaring that Turkey poses stiff competition for many adventure travel destinations. “Turkey has amazing adventure travel potential and we have been offering active tours there since 2014,” he says. “Activities such as hiking in Cappadoccia or the Lycian trails as well as cycling and kayaking are perfect for UK travellers looking for a more active trip with a shorter flight time.”
Ramblers Holidays halted its Turkish programme last year due to the political situation and low demand. But product manager Gemma Higgs says she had no hesitation in returning to the scenic Lycian Way trail on the Mediterranean coast this year. “Turkey’s genuine warm hospitality has an enduring appeal for visitors. It’s also such a varied and beautiful country. Our Turkish partner gives me regular updates on the ground and he has confirmed that tourists are returning in good numbers, to enjoy a safe, trouble-free holiday.”
The recovery in tourism is more patchy in Egypt, but the signs are still positive. From a high of almost 920,000 in 2014, Egypt’s UK arrivals fell to about 230,000 in 2016. Last year saw the green shoots of recovery, with almost 320,000 arrivals. And the first two months of this year saw an increase of 39 per cent on the same period last year.
It’s not surprising that Brits are keen to return to the year-round sunshine of the Red Sea resorts, to dive and snorkel on the coral reefs and sunbathe on the thousands of kilometres of beautiful white sand beaches.
Although the Foreign Office continues to advise against all but essential travel to Sharm el Sheikh airport, Classic Collection reports that Egypt bookings are up by 65 per cent but notes that the market share is smaller than Turkey. Boyer adds, “Should the travel advice to Sharm el Sheikh change, that would help immensely with sales to Egypt as there is pent-up demand. If Sharm airport were to come back on sale, we would be able to turn around a dedicated Egypt brochure quickly enough and distribute to the trade to meet demand.”
However, airlines including EasyJet, Thomas Cook and Tui still operate regular services from the UK to Egypt, with the weekly frequency increasing from 18 to 25 flights this summer. All three airlines fly to the beachfront city of Hurghada, while airlift to the up-and-coming Marsa Alam resort town has increased with Thomas Cook launching flights from Gatwick and Birmingham, joining an existing Tui service from Gatwick.
Hurghada takes centre stage in the Egypt Tourism Authority’s 2018 UK advertising campaign, with directors believing the well-established, lively resort holds the key to rejuvenating the market.
Amr El Ezabi, UK & Ireland director for the Egyptian Tourism Authority, says: “Hurghada still needs more awareness but we believe the British market can easily double in capacity there. Just like Sharm,
it has sunshine, clean beaches, a wide range of dining options, and activities for every type of tourist.”
Egypt has a strong hotel pipeline (see above), which includes the opening of Africa’s first Waldorf Astoria and Egypt’s first St Regis property, demonstrating a renewed confidence. Plus the highly anticipated opening of the Grand Egyptian Museum at the end of this year will give a boost to Cairo.
Cruising on the river Nile – with its abundance of ancient history and culture, front-row seats for watching local life unfold on the river bank, and its stunning sunsets – is also on its way back. Before 2011, more than 300 boats were operating on the Nile, but many operators either withdrew from the river or cut back their sailings after the Arab Spring brought unrest to the country.
“Today, there are more than 200 boats on the Nile again,” says Philip Breckner, commercial director of Discover Egypt, which was one of the few operators to remain on the river with a more limited programme. “We are seeing a sharp increase in demand for Egypt, particularly on the classical side, and we have doubled the frequency of our sailings this year, with a selection of four boats on offer for seven-night cruises from Luxor to Aswan, full-board, with excursions included.”
He notes renewed confidence in customers looking to book Egypt. “Until six months ago, the most common question we fielded was: “Is it safe?’ But Egypt has dropped off the news agenda, and customers are more savvy now. They realise there’s as much chance of a terrorist attack in Paris, Brussels or London as in Egypt.”
Of the three, Tunisia has had the furthest to travel to regain its position because of the prolonged Foreign Office ban – but again, the winning combination of sandy beaches, camel rides, desert dunes, and spice-filled souks, combined with warm hospitality is a powerful call for the British market.
In 2014 a record number of 420,000 UK visitors travelled to Tunisia. However, following the devastating terrorist attack and loss of life in the resort of Sousse and subsequent change to Foreign Office advice, these numbers fell significantly. The advice against travel was lifted in July 2017, and Thomas Cook was the first UK tour operator to relaunch its programme to Tunisia with the first flights departing in February 2018.
Tunisian specialist Just Sunshine says the 2015 terror attacks had a massive impact on business. “A big chunk had gone,” says Can Deniz, managing director. “We diverted business to Turkey and invested in new destinations, but we had to cut back our expenses in order to survive.”
Just Sunshine offers all the main Mediterranean resorts – Tunis, Hammamet, Port El Kantaoui, Skanes, Mahdia, Gammarth, Yasmine, Sousse, Monastir and Djerba – and business is slowly starting to return, but Deniz predicts the recovery will be gradual until the lates market kicks in. “Availability will be tight in Greece, Spain and Portugal and those prices will only go up. That’s when we’ll see a rush for Tunisia that will kickstart the trend, and then we are confident 2019 will be a good year.
“Tunisia has so much going for it. It’s only two and a half hours flying time from the UK, the cost of living is very cheap, it’s full of history and culture and the people are so eager to have the Brits back.”
Wahida Jaiet, UK & Ireland director of the Tunisian National Tourist Office, agrees the country is delighted to welcome British tourists back to Tunisia: “I am fully aware of the challenge which faces us in 2018, but I can reassure our travel trade partners that we are fully prepared for it,” he says. “We are looking forward to working with them to re-establish Tunisia’s position in the UK market as a welcoming destination for British tourists.
“I don’t see 2018 as being about achieving a specific target or number of tourists. It is more about reminding our British friends just how much Tunisia has to offer. I am delighted that the season has got off to such a positive start.”