Turks hoping tourism boom will change attitudes toward EU bid

ISTANBUL – Standing in front of what was the world’s largest church for 1,089 years, Jan de Bruyne said that on his sixth visit to Turkey he remained enchanted with the country. But, like many Europeans, he doesn’t think it belongs in the European Union. «I’ve traveled the whole country to the border with Iran,» the Dutchman said in front of Haghia Sophia, which now sports four minarets thanks to the Muslim conquest of Constantinople in 1453. But as far as EU expansion is concerned, he said, «There has to be a limit.» De Bruyne is one of some 12 million EU citizens who will travel to Turkey this year, fueling a tourism boom that has made the country one of the world’s most popular holiday destinations. Turkey is hoping the contact will dispel negative perceptions and deepen ties, but Europeans’ views on Turkey’s lack of «Europeanness» are proving stubbornly hard to overcome. The last poll from the European head office shows only 35 percent support Turkey’s EU bid. «It’s a nice place to come visit, but it’s something else to have it as a member of the European community,» de Bruyne said. «Maybe some other form of membership,» he added, expressing a common European view that Turkey’s leaders, who will begin negotiations for EU membership on Monday, have said is unacceptable. There could hardly be a better backdrop than Haghia Sophia for discussing the negatives and positives of allowing Turkey to join the EU. On the one hand, the church built under the direction of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I is a reminder to many European visitors that Turkey is a complex mix of civilizations that, as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan argues, «can easily be a bridge between East and West.» On the other hand, the fact that one of the most magnificent Christian structures ever built was converted into a mosque is a reminder for many that bringing 99 percent-Muslim Turkey into the European club means adding a huge and culturally different country – and extending the EU’s borders to Turkey’s neighbors, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Falk Oeynhausen, a German waiting for his wife and smoking a cigarette in the lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel, a converted Ottoman prison, echoed de Bruynes’s concerns. «I think the associated partnership might not be bad for a while, but otherwise, no,» he said. The idea of a privileged partnership falling short of membership is championed by Angela Merkel, the German conservative leader locked in a battle to become chancellor. Turkey’s current government, which is led by a group of moderate Islamists who have staked everything on Turkey’s EU bid, is working hard to change those views. Officials say they have implemented all of the preconditions required of them for EU membership, and the key in negotiations – which are widely expected to take a decade or more – will be to improve Turkey’s image in Europe. With an estimated 22 million people expected to visit Turkey in 2005, a 25 percent increase over last year’s record numbers, Turkey has an unprecedented chance to do just that. Especially since around 55 percent of those visitors will come from the countries that Turkey is hoping to join in the EU. Turkey’s tourism industry took deep hits in 2001 following the terror attacks on the United States and again in 2003 with the start of the war in neighboring Iraq, but recovered rapidly and has become one of the country’s most important and fastest-growing sources of income. Al-Qaeda-linked truck bombings in 2003 also set back tourism, but the country has more than recovered and tourism is expected to contribute $20 billion to the economy this year. The country is certainly blessed with more than its share of attractions. Istanbul spans two continents and holds the accumulated history of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires and was the capital of both. The country’s western and southern borders are the Aegean and Mediterranean seas. Government-sponsored promotion abroad has helped push the industry forward and doubtlessly attracted visitors. For months, buses in many cities across the world have been plastered with images of Miss World 2002, Turkey’s Azra Akin, blowing kisses and welcoming visitors. Gorkem Yildizoglu, 10, and Abdullah Faruk Kahraman, 9, playing outside the Blue Mosque were cautiously hopeful for the EU. «If we go in the EU, lots of things will change,» Yildizoglu said. «The ones without work will get work,» Kahraman added. «Our technology will get a little better… We’ll harmonize with other civilizations, we’ll learn other languages like English and German,» he said, counting the improvements off on his fingers. «Bad habits will go away… the trash will get picked up off the streets.» Yildizoglu slapped the arm of his younger, bespectacled classmate. «Don’t exaggerate,» he said. «But lots of things will change.»