The Environmental Costs of Turkey’s Tourism Boom

Alexandra de Cramer

Image courtesy of Omar Has Kadour / AFP

Despite mismanaging the country’s economy while failing to curb inflation amid a cratering currency, Turkey’s government has used the tourism sector to maintain a reliable source of revenue. Unfortunately, this profitable financial safety net – worth nearly $25 billion in 2021– has come at the cost of Turkey’s environment.

One of the most enraging examples of this tradeoff surfaced in July, when news broke that an archaeologically-significant coastal area had been sold to Cengiz Insaat, a construction company with close ties to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The company is building a Bulgari Hotel on a 167.5-acre-plot in Bodrum’s Cennet Bay – despite the fact that the State Council twice rejected the project. But so far, no amount of public protest has managed to derail construction.

Worse, it’s not the first time the pristine tract of coastal paradise has fallen victim to the shovel. In 2012, the same thing happened in the same location, when roughly 600 acres were sold to the Mandarin Oriental hotel chain. During that project, some 10,000 olive trees were removed to make room for luxury accommodations.

There’s an old myth in Turkey that the government starts forest fires to make space for tourism facilities. While the conspiracy predates the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which was founded in 2001, the government’s lack of environmental policies has turned accusation into fact for many voters. At the very least, as forester, academic, and Yesil Gazete columnist Cihan Erdonmez notes, it’s indisputable that the party has bureaucratically cleared forests for the industry.

In the Turkish Constitution, Article 169 forbids repurposing burnt forests for development, but the law is not as strict for existing forests. Currently, forestlands can be cleared for “national security” reasons or in “the interest of the public/common good.” This, combined with a 1982 law encouraging tourism infrastructure, has created the perfect loophole for Erdogan’s party.

Since July 2021, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism has overseen forestland development and been the sole decision maker on project proposals. Erdonmez calculates that 1.85 million acres of forest – some 3 percent of the country’s total forested area – has been allocated using the various loopholes. And as Erdogan Suzer, a journalist at Sozcu, reported last year, the only criteria for tourism facilities to be built is to pay the government for the trees removed.

Projects such as Bodrum’s Mandarin Oriental and its new neighbor, Bulgari Hotel, are just two examples of many. In July, eight neighborhoods in Istanbul’s Beykoz district had their protected area status revoked, spreading fear of further environmental pillaging.

That the AKP doesn’t prioritize the environment is no secret. Leaders have long ignored the risk of climate change, for example, despite Turkey’s struggles with the consequences. In November 2019, President Erdogan demonstrated his disinterest in the topic when he launched a tree-planting campaign that foresters later said would end in failure because saplings can’t survive when planted so late in the fall. Amid such comical gaffs, it’s not hard to see why many people assume the AKP values tourism over environmental protection.

Tourism is a damaging pastime for the planet. More travel means more garbage, an overuse of water supplies, and a drastic increase in heat-trapping emissions. The World Counts project, a data-driven initiative to inspire awareness of global challenges, marks the exponential growth of tourism as one of the major threats to the environment. Every year, 1.4 billion tourists circulate the globe. This number has more than tripled since 1990.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Turkey was one of the few countries that stayed open to foreign arrivals. In May 2021, Turkish social media exploded with outrage at a promotional video by the country’s tourism ministry that shamelessly promoted Turkey as a go-to holiday destination – even as Turks themselves were in lockdown. Turkey was the fourth-most-visited country in 2021, with more than 29 million visitors.

That number is expected to surge in the coming years. By 2028, Turkey aims to host 100 million tourists, and Mehmet Nuri Ersoy, Turkey’s minister of culture and tourism, says the target is likely to be met. (Benefiting will be Ersoy himself, who recently secured two hotel projects worth billions in Antalya).

Much to the dismay of environmentalists, tourism is an untouchable source of revenue for the AKP regime. Turkey has used the tourism industry at the expense of its own citizens – domestic tourism plummeted this year as the lira plunged and prices surged – and it keeps doing so at the expense of its environment.

To be sure, tourism is a short-term solution that allows for fast cash from abroad. But it won’t solve the country’s more endemic problems. Relying on tourism for stable jobs and capital is an unsustainable business model, and yet, with a weak economy that has deprived citizens of economic prosperity, tourism is a necessary evil in Turkey.

The challenge, then, is balancing the influx of tourists without destroying the very reasons why they come – like untouched forests and aquamarine views. If the AKP keeps paving over the Turkish Riviera with five-star hotels, it won’t be long before there is no one arriving to fill them.

Alexandra de Cramer is a journalist based in Istanbul. She reported on the Arab Spring from Beirut as a Middle East correspondent for Milliyet newspaper. Her work ranges from current affairs to culture, and has been featured in Monocle, Courier Magazine, Maison Francaise, and Istanbul Art News.