Antalya (Credit: Ufuk Ceri)

Mustafa Akyurt used to manage a bar in Kaleiçi, a tourist-friendly neighbourhood in Antalya, on Turkey’s southern coast. When the pandemic began earlier this year, he said, business “effectively stopped”. 

“I’m unemployed at the moment and I don’t have an income,” he said. “I can’t make a living for myself. I’m a member of the entertainment industry, and everyone in the business, from waiters to musicians, is suffering right now. We’re all struggling to make ends meet. We unfortunately have to accept help from our families at this age, and that upsets us. Our living standards have really deteriorated. We’re in a sad state.”

Akyurt said that he applied to get financial aid during the pandemic but received no response. “I have no income. I can’t pay bills…The money I applied for won’t be enough either. We just take it day by day.”

While the Covid-19 pandemic has negatively affected workers in many industries, tourism has received perhaps the greatest blow. Antalya in particular plays a crucial role in Turkey’s tourist industry. In 2019, 15 million of the 48 million tourists who visited Turkey chose to stay in the city. 

Antalya (Credit: Ufuk Ceri)

Ferit Turgut, head of the Mediterranean division of the Turkish Travel Agencies Union (TÜRSAB) said that tourism halted completely in the early stages of the pandemic, but domestic travel started to pick up again from late June, followed by an increase in international visitors in August.

“Numbers went back up after travel from Germany restarted with PCR testing,” he said. “About three million tourists came to Antalya between August 14 and October 15.”

Mustafa Akyurt (Credit: Ufuk Ceri)

Nevertheless, only half of Antalya’s hotels opened this year. Turgut continued, “Business owners didn’t open shops because they didn’t anticipate profits. Tourism is the main driving force behind the Antalya economy. There were 600,000 to 700,000 people who worked in tourism, more than half of them were negatively affected. They’re trying to go into other areas of work,” he said.

Antalya was also a destination for winter vacations before the pandemic, offering visitors beach holidays in the summer and sports, golfing and business tourism the rest of the year. Turgut said that none of the usual business conventions took place this year. 

Ferit Turgut (Credit: Ufuk Ceri)

“It’s the same in sports,” he said. “Golf is an individual sport, so there’s still room for tourism, but that clientele has also shrunk by 80 per cent. Honestly, winter tourism is near non-existent.”

A further complication is that the majority of Antalya’s tourists came from Russia, Germany and the UK – all countries with high rates of infection. 

“I think tourism in Antalya will pick up if cases decrease in Europe,” Turgut said, noting that the state of the industry will become clearer by March 2021. “The state gave decent support to airlines and hotels, but we can’t speak of any help to travel agencies.”

Sedat Sabah (Credit: Ufuk Ceri)

Sedat Sabah runs a boutique hotel in Kaleiçi, a family business which has just had its worst season since it first opened in 1986. 

“There was a 70 per cent drop in business from last year. The number of customers and the length of their stay both shrunk,” Sabah said.

Although Sabah’s hotel saw a slight recovery in business during the summer, they operated with reduced staff numbers. Some employees had to claim money from the government’s reduced hours scheme, which tops up the wages of workers in struggling industries. 

“We hired temporary employees in August and September when business was OK. We tried to stay afloat with low-interest loans when business was scarce. We still had a decent profit as a business but it was still way below expectations.”

Despite the pandemic, Sabah remains hopeful for the future. “People will come next year too, whether it’s with masks or social distancing, whether the season is open or not. I think the worst of it has passed for tourism. I don’t think it can get worse than what we’ve seen.”

Hundreds of thousands of workers lost their jobs during the pandemic, according to Mustafa Saffet Yahyaoğlu, head of Turkey’s Progressive Tourism Workers Union (Dev Turizm  İş). 

Mustafa Saffet Yahyaoğlu (Credit: Ufuk Ceri)

“Workers were all going to start their jobs when the pandemic hit,” he said. “Seasonal workers in Antalya usually take a break from working in September or October, when the season ends, and come back in March. This year, because of the pandemic, all businesses started sending employees on unpaid leave, let alone employing new workers.” 

“We could say that half of the tourism industry is plunged in unemployment,” Yahyaoğlu continued. “None of the open restaurants, cafes or bars received business. Workers who were placed on reduced hours pensions in April started getting paid time off for 39 liras a day. That puts the workers on the hunger line, but it’s better than nothing. However, very few tourism workers were eligible for that because they’re seasonal workers without social security.”

According to data from Turkey’s Social Security Institution (SGK), there were 931,257 tourism workers in Turkey in September of 2020. That’s a 121,352-person drop from last year, when 1,052,609 tourism workers were employed.

However, Yahyaoğlu thinks that those numbers are deceptive. 

“We estimate there are about three to three and a half million tourism workers in Turkey. Large [hotels] that have more than 500 beds rarely employ workers without social security, because they get inspected. Smaller businesses on the other hand, often employ [people] without social security. It may seem that tourism runs on large hotels, but there’s thousands of small businesses. There are 4,000 hotels in Antalya, but 30,000 to 40,000 restaurants, cafes and bars. Those mostly hire seasonal workers without social security.”

Yahyaoğlu said that tourism will be lost in 2021 too if the pandemic hasn’t been controlled by then. Noting that business owners can stay afloat somewhat but that workers are struggling, Yahyaoğlu said that “workers who lost their jobs at the end of the 2019 season never went to work in 2020. They didn’t receive any help from the government. The state should pay minimum wage to all workers, insured or not.”