Turkey’s economy plunges as tourists stay away after Hagia Sophia, Chora conversions

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As Turkey experiences an economic decline, the conversion of the Hagia Sophia and Chora museums into mosques dealt a blow to Turkey’s tourism industry which has already been dealt a blow from the global coronavirus pandemic. In the second quarter of 2020, Turkey’s economy shrank 9.9 percent from the previous quarter.

Revenue from the mosques was set to be around $35 million this year. But because of the pandemic and the conversions of the mosques, that revenue will not materialize.

In July 2020, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in a controversial decision that was condemned by the international community, converted the Hagia Sophia back into a mosque. Built as a Christian church under the Byzantine Empire and converted to a mosque during the Ottoman Empire and then museum after the founding of the Turkish Republic, the decision sparked outrage by critics who said Erdogan was pandering to his conservative, religious base to bolster domestic support.

At the start of August, Erdogan announced that another historic site was also going to be converted into a mosque. This time it was the Chora museum.

This museum, like the Hagia Sophia, was built as a church and became a mosque under the Ottomans, only to become a museum following the founding of the Republic.

Visitors are seen at the Chora mosque in Istanbul, Turkey, that was recently converted from a museum back into a mosque. (Nicholas Frakes)
Visitors are seen at the Chora mosque in Istanbul, Turkey, that was recently converted from a museum back into a mosque. (Nicholas Frakes)

Every year, millions of people used to visit the two museums, bringing in tens of millions of tourism dollars for the Turkish economy. Now, however, tourists are still free to enter outside prayer times, but they do not pay entrance fees for the highly trafficked sites.

The loss of funds could pose a threat to the Turkish economy that depends on tourism for around 30 percent of its annual income. However, even without Erdogan’s controversial decision, this year has seen drastically lower numbers due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Almost $35 million was expected [this year from the mosques],” Turkish economist Mustafa Sonmez told Al Arabiya English, “but unfortunately this is almost zero [because of the pandemic].” In 2019, total revenue from tourism hit a high $34.5 billion, Turkish state media TRT World reported.

Visitors are seen at the Chora mosque in Istanbul, Turkey, that was recently converted from a museum back into a mosque. (Nicholas Frakes)
Visitors are seen at the Chora mosque in Istanbul, Turkey, that was recently converted from a museum back into a mosque. (Nicholas Frakes)

Turkey’s lack of tourism and economic woes have already started to have an effect on the country’s tourism industry with some businesses forced to lay off employees and others having to close their doors. As of now, the government has provided very limited economic relief for the businesses in the tourism industry.

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“Many hotels and many other touristic places, their capacity has decreased and their employment has decreased,” Sonmez explained. “They are bad conditions and many have closed their shops and don’t work anymore. Nobody knows what will happen because the pandemic situation is not getting better and is actually worsening.”

Businesses were hoping that tourism would see a surge this autumn, when people are more likely to visit cultural sites rather than going to the beach or sea due to the drop in temperature, but some fear that with the Hagia Sophia and Chora becoming mosques, tourists may forgo planned visits.

“Turkish tourism had already suffered a blow with the pandemic when the European Union did not include Turkey as a ‘safe’ country,” Nazlan Ertan, a Turkish journalist, told Al Arabiya English. “Still the Turkish tourism operators were hoping to make a late recovery, meaning, in late autumn and when you speak of late autumn, of course, you are speaking about cultural tourism.”

According to Ertan, these decisions by Erdogan send a message that he and Turkey prioritize Islam and Muslims over other all other things, especially for those who are looking to visit from the West.

“It clinches Erdogan’s image in the eyes of the Western tourists as a conservative who has Islam foremost in his mind,” Ertan said.

This also comes at a time where Erdogan’s regional rival, Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, has been promoting his country’s diverse religious roots in an effort to boost tourism.

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“This is when Sisi is sort of capitalizing on the Christian and Jewish heritage of Egypt,” Ertan stated. “So if you are going to come to the Middle East and on one hand you have one country which is opening its non-Muslim heritage and another that it is opening it for worship and removing their statuses as museums, which one are you going to visit?”

Egypt and Turkey have been trying to market itself as attractive destinations for tourists, and earlier this year, the Turkish government announced its plan to get more people to visit the country by 2023, the year marking 100 years since the founding of modern-day Turkey.

A foreign tourist pauses as she visits the Byzantine monument of Hagia Sophia on May 25, 2011. (AFP)
A foreign tourist pauses as she visits the Byzantine monument of Hagia Sophia on May 25, 2011. (AFP)

Ertan said Turkey is aiming to attract 75 million tourists annually by 2023.

A major selling point for this vision is Turkey’s multicultural heritage rather than focusing on any specific religion or ethnic group.

However, with the value of the Turkish lira falling and inflation and unemployment rising, Erdogan is losing popularity. And to appeal to more voters, he decided to convert the museums into mosques in an effort to gain the support of the more conservative and religious groups in the country.

Read more: Turkish magazine calls for founding Islamic caliphate after Hagia Sophia conversion

“A gesture to Muslims is [a] much more immediate [political gain] and preferable and the [gains from the] touristic side of Hagia Sophia can be negligible,” Sonmez argued. “That’s why he didn’t take it into consideration.”

While nearly 3.5 million people visit the Hagia Sophia and Chora annually, Sonmez said that it is currently impossible to predict the potential economic fallout that Erdogan’s decision might have as tourism has practically ground to a halt as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

A tourism agency based in Turkey also told Al Arabiya English that it was “much too early to tell” what the potential impact might be on their business.

However, Ertan believes that the message that Erdogan’s decisions send to Turkish society and the world is much larger than any potential economic ramifications that might occur.

“I am not sure that the impact would be simply limited to how much money you are going to make from the Hagia Sophia and Chora museums in terms of entry fees,” she argued. “It is the overall message that you carry.”

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