The month of May traditionally marks the beginning of the tourism season in Turkey. Despite rising prices and the domestic turmoil triggered by the closure case against the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), 2008 is expected to be another record year.
Over 27 million foreign tourists visited Turkey in 2007 and the tourism sector is now one of Turkey’s main sources of foreign currency. Total tourism revenue was almost $18.5 billion in 2007 and is confidently expected to exceed $20 billion this year. Most of the foreign tourists come from cold European countries, such as Germany, Russia and Britain, in search more of sun, sea and sand than Turkey’s rich cultural heritage and treasure trove of historical artifacts. On the beaches along Turkey’s Mediterranean and Aegean coasts, scantily-dressed foreigners and Turks sunbathe alongside each other. On some beaches, it is not unusual to see Turkish and foreign women bathing topless.
However, although it remains a niche market, in recent years, the fastest growth in the Turkish tourism industry has been in hotels catering to what the specialist tour operators who market them describe as “Islamic hotels” (www.tesetturluoteller.gen.tr), which offer separate swimming pools and recreational facilities for men and women, with the women’s bathing facilities shielded from the prying eyes by fences or walls, and a strict prohibition on anything deemed un-Islamic, such as the serving of alcoholic drinks.
The first such establishment, the Caprice Hotel in Didim on Turkey’s Aegean coast, was opened in 1995. There are now believed to be 27 such hotels scattered throughout Turkey, most of them having opened since the moderate Islamist AKP first came to power in November 2002. According to a survey by Mustafa Dogan of Canakkale University, two new Islamic hotels were opened in 2004, three in 2005 and 10 in 2006. In addition to offering segregated bathing, several of the hotels also offer health facilities such as spas; again with strictly segregated areas for men and women (Referans, May 17).
Despite the recent rapid growth, the total number of guests who stay at such Islamic hotels remains relatively small at around 50,000 a year. One of the reasons for the low number is that most conservative Turks do not have a tradition of taking vacations at hotels, whether at the seaside or elsewhere. This is partly because there was nowhere for them to go, before the Caprice opened in 1995. Those who did take vacations tended to be recent migrants to the cities who would return to their ancestral homes in the countryside to visit relatives. Another reason was financial. The poor in Turkey still tend to be the most conservative segment of society. However, one of the most striking social changes in Turkey over the last 15 years has been the emergence of a conservative bourgeoisie, mainly as the result of small and medium-sized businesses from small-town Anatolia growing rich on the back of the Turkish export boom of the 1990s; and then moving both their businesses and their families into the metropolises of western Turkey.
The AKP itself is largely a product of this social change, providing the party with not only many of its leading members but also most of its finances. In turn, since it came to power, the AKP has enriched its own supporters by awarding state and local authority contracts to conservative businesses.
For Turkey’s secularist elite, the rapid growth in Islamic hotels is just the latest encroachment into what had previously been their exclusive preserves. When the conservative bourgeoisie first began to emerge in the 1990s, it initially developed parallel to the traditional secularist elite. Most conservative Turks lived in their own neighborhoods, had their own publications, television and radio and even shopped in their own stores. It is difficult to be certain whether Turkish society has really become more conservative since the AKP came to power. What it is undeniable is that conservatives have become more visible. For example, ten years ago it was unusual to see a woman wearing a headscarf shopping in a glitzy shopping mall in an expensive neighborhood. Now they are commonplace, and it is often possible even to see women wearing the all-black chador.
It is this visible change in Turkey society, rather than the fear that the AKP is preparing to introduce Islamic sharia law, that underpins the strength of secularist opposition to the current government. However frequently the AKP may deny that it is an Islamist party and repeat its commitment to secularism, for many secularists, the changes that they see in their everyday lives stand as proof that the tide is turning against them and that they are now under siege.
For the moment at least, Turkey’s parallel societies rarely meet on the country’s beaches. But the fear for many secularists is that, even if they still account for a small proportion of the total number of hotels in the country, the extraordinarily rapid growth in Islamic hotels is another sign of things to come. Although attention is now focused on the ongoing case before the Constitutional Court for the AKP’s closure (see EDM, April 1), both secularists and Islamists are aware that, ultimately, the battle for the soul of Turkey will be won and lost not in the political arena but in the social one.