EU-backed TurkAegean tourism campaign unlocks fresh row with Greece

by on 15 July 2022
The ancient city of Assos, or Behramkale, is seen in this undated file photo.

Turkey’s recent tourism campaign, dubbed “TurkAegean,” was created to lure foreign visitors to the country’s southwestern shores, but it has incurred a reaction from its neighbor on the other side of the sea, Greece, who said the campaign is usurping its culture.

With long-standing issues between Ankara and Athens in mind, the campaign was also commented on by some Greek analysts and politicians as a political step rather than one that simply aims to make the Aegean – on which Turkey has a coastline of more than 2,800 kilometers (1,740 miles) – more attractive for visitors coming to the country just as much as those visiting Greece.

In November, Deputy Tourism Minister Nadir Alpaslan said that Greece “has made the world perceive the Aegean as its region.”

“We will do this even more strongly next year and show that the Aegean is not a region of Greece, but also a region of Turkey, a tourism brand,” he said.

The European Union recently announced the approval of Ankara’s request to the EU’s intellectual property office to trademark the term. The country initially logged its request last December.

“Some people … quite simply, did not do their job well,” was the initial reaction from Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis to the EU decision.

Greece’s top EU official, European Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas, demanded the decision be reviewed, in a letter he wrote to Thierry Breton, his counterpart in charge of internal markets.

Comments and interpretations that associate the campaign with Turkey’s so-called expansionist moves in the surrounding seas have undermined the one thing that is overly ignored by the two states, which is that the two countries have more in common than they might like to believe – from the opposite stretches of the Aegean Sea to the food and music those foreign travelers might enjoy on both sides.

“The Turkish Aegean is one of the most exquisite regions Turkey has to offer,” Culture and Tourism Minister Mehmet Nuri Ersoy said while commenting on the campaign.

“It boasts coastlines wrapped in clear blue water, numerous historical sites dating back to the second century B.C. and idyllic beaches to soak up the beaming sun,” he told the Financial Times.

The Aegean coasts of Turkey indeed have much to offer, yet the region significantly lags behind the touristic attractions of Turkish provinces on the Mediterranean.

Some 40% of the tourists visiting Turkey in the pre-pandemic year of 2019 preferred to spend their holidays near the Mediterranean, while another 40% chose the Marmara region where Istanbul is located, according to the Turkish Tourism, Promotion and Development Agency (TGA). Only 20% visited the Aegean and Anatolian regions, with each attracting half of the remaining tourists.

To reverse this and enable the region to take its fair share of the country’s foreign arrivals, the TurkAegean promotion campaign focuses on regions with a rich history as well as renowned beaches – almost 250 of which are Blue Flag certified.

The regions of Datça, Foça, Çeşme, Didim, Urla, Seferihisar, Akyaka, Cunda, Ayvalık, Bodrum, Kuşadası and Assos, in particular, stand out in the campaign.

The campaign created categories like “See,” “Taste,” “Touch,” “Smell” and “Listen” – for example, emphasizing the ancient cities of Ephesus and Bergama, two UNESCO cultural heritage sites in İzmir, under the category “See.”

For the “Taste” category, “boyoz,” Izmir’s flaky pastry of Sephardic origin, stuffed zucchini flowers, figs, grapes and olives come to the fore.

The Pamukkale Travertines near Denizli province – a snow-white terrace studded with mineral-rich pools, the ancient city of Hierapolis and Cleopatra Island are those listed under “Touch.”

With “Smell,” areas such as the Spirit of Çesme in İzmir and the Seven Bays of Bodrum in Muğla are highlighted, while the Underwater World in Muğla and Zeybek folk dance fall under “Listen.”

Yet, the coastal provinces are not the only destinations where a tourist might enjoy their vacations in Turkey’s Aegean, which boasts some of the world’s most original spa and wellbeing experiences.

The springs of Afyonkarahisar – a province in the central Aegean region – are among the richest thermal sources in the world, with the city having the additional acclaim of being named a UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy since 2019.

The campaign also offers a guideline for “Aegean routes,” from trekking and rock climbing destinations to cycling routes in İzmir and Muğla – including parts of the Eurovelo 8 Mediterranean Route – as well as “spiritual routes” for those who want to experience the very spirit of Odysseus and Iliad or to follow the steps of ancient philosophers.

Izmir alone is home to a total of 28 cycling routes between mythological places. In Muğla, there are 11 mountain bike and nine road bike routes between ancient cities and turquoise bays.

Territorial sovereignty disputes

Yet, the Aegean Sea has been the focus of much more than foreign and local vacationers enjoying the very similar features of Turkey and Greece. It has also been at the center of territorial sovereignty disputes of varying degrees between the two countries.

The armed forces of the two NATO allies have been mostly accusing one another of violating air, land or water delineations, while there is a long list of disputes from the problematic status and militarization of the Aegean islands to the deadlock on the island of Cyprus and the hydrocarbon research activities in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Most recently, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said that he refuses to meet with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis until the Greek leader “pulls himself together.”

On relations with Greece, Erdoğan said upon his return from Madrid that NATO leaders at the summit had offered to mediate and organize talks with Mitsotakis.

“We said ‘sorry, but we don’t have time for such a meeting right now.’ Because it is obvious that they are militarizing the islands,” said Erdoğan.

“Let him pull himself together. As long as he doesn’t pull himself together, it is not possible for us to meet,” he said.

The president’s remarks came after the Greek premier lobbied for the United States not to sell Turkey F-16 fighter jets during a speech at the U.S. Congress. The country, which has inked a deal to buy F-35 fighter jets from the very same company that makes F-16s, has also been spending a great deal of its gross domestic product (GDP) on defense expenditures and arms purchases.

Erdoğan further reiterated that Turkey has no desire to go to war with Greece, adding that Athens did not keep promises and violated air space 147 times.

Ankara is demanding that Athens demilitarize its eastern islands close to the Turkish coast, which it says is a deliberate act, citing the 20th-century treaties that ceded sovereignty of the islands to Greece.

Starting with the Treaty of London in 1913, the militarization of the eastern Aegean islands was restricted and their demilitarized status was confirmed with the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923. The Lausanne pact established a political balance between the two countries by harmonizing vital interests, including those in the Aegean.

The 1947 Treaty of Paris, which ceded the Dodecanese islands from Italy to Greece, also confirmed their demilitarized status.

However, Greece argues that the 1936 Montreux Convention on the Turkish Straits should be applied in this case, while Ankara says Greece’s obligation to disarm the islands remains unchanged under the Montreux Convention, highlighting that no provision differentiates it from the Treaty of Lausanne on the issue.

Amid the current political sphere and the tense Turkey-Greek ties, the sharing of the Aegean Sea, even as a common ground to attract tourists, remains uncertain with both sides unable to resolve their differences.

Ankara has repeatedly stressed that it favors resolving outstanding problems through international law, good neighborly relations, dialogue and negotiations while Athens, occasionally refusing to sit at the table with its neighbor, opted to rally Brussels to take a tougher stance on Turkey – with both approaches lacking mutual trust.

For Greece, a hypothetical and existential threat of war with Turkey is also a driving force for internal politics, with the Greek opposition weighing on the issue more than ever as the country is set to hold general elections as early as September.

Evangelos Areteos, a research associate at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP), an Athens-based think tank, said that many Greeks believe Turkey will one day invade an island or start an armed conflict with their nation.

“This fear is very strong in Greece,” Areteos said.

“We wake up with Turkey and we go to bed with Turkey. It’s amazing. The average Greek knows much better what Erdoğan said today or yesterday than the average Turk,” Areteos told independent news platform, Turkey recap.

“We don’t have an issue like ‘let’s go to war with Greece, let’s make war.’ But Greece is not standing by their promises,” Erdoğan said on July 1.