ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey’s government, which has Islamist roots, yesterday defended its move to regulate alcohol consumption and denied claims by the secularist media that it wants to ban liquor altogether. But experts warned that any restrictions on alcohol in the European Union candidate country risked damaging Turkey’s highly lucrative tourist industry. The issue has exposed deep distrust between Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the secularists who still dominate Turkey’s powerful military, academic, media and judicial establishment. The government has issued guidelines to local councils and those run by the AKP have started to ban alcohol from restaurants and cafes run by them, though Erdogan says Turks can still drink freely in privately owned establishments. The debate over whether and how to restrict alcohol sales has now spread to holiday resorts such as Antalya and Kusadasi. «There is no question of a ban… We are a government in favor of freedom, not of bans,» Interior Minister Abdulkadir Aksu said in televised remarks. He accused the AKP’s political opponents of deliberately misrepresenting the government’s aims. Turkish media have reported that the AKP wants to limit establishments licensed to sell alcohol to specially designated zones, mostly on the edge of towns and cities, in an attempt to discourage drinking. Aksu said such an interpretation was wrong and the changes merely meant that local councils, not governors or other individual officials, would decide in future who received alcohol licenses. Tourism under threat? With local councils in many Turkish towns and cities, including its capital Ankara and business hub Istanbul, now in AKP hands, critics fear it will be more difficult to obtain licences to sell alcohol. The AKP denies any Islamist agenda and says it is a conservative party that wants to protect family values. Faruk Sen, the director of the Center for Turkish Studies at Germany’s University of Duisburg-Essen, said the AKP risked frightening away foreign tourists by restricting alcohol. «The holiday region Antalya could be hit by that ban soon,» Sen said in a statement. «This would be a bigger blow to tourism in Turkey than the war in (neighboring) Iraq and Kurdish terrorism together. With such a policy of re-Islamization, Turkey is gambling away all its future opportunities.» Critics also note that beer, wine and most spirits are now more expensive in relatively poor Turkey than in most European countries because of tax hikes imposed by the AKP government. Nearly 20 million foreign tourists visited Turkey – a country blessed with a long coast, a warm climate and abundant historic treasures – in the first 10 months of 2005, a rise of 21 percent from the same period last year, official data show. The tourists provide a vital source of foreign currency for the country as it recovers from a 2001 financial crisis which wiped out 10 percent of its economy.