Website article: http://www.thenational.ae/article/20080720/FOREIGN/810801243/1041/ART
Thomas Seibert, Foreign Correspondent
A woman prepares wreaths outside Mary’s House chapel near Selcuk, Turkey. Authorities and tour operators have identified many biblical sites to try to attract additional visitors and revenue. Menahem Kahana / AFP
ISTANBUL // Forget about sun, beaches and all-inclusive hotels. The hottest travel trend in Turkey is religious tourism, as such sites as the house of Mary, mother of Jesus, the church of the original Santa Claus and the ancient hometown of St Paul are attracting a growing number of visitors.
Although Turkey is a predominantly Muslim country today, many important events in Christian history and tradition took place in Anatolia, a heritage that authorities and tour operators have identified as a source for additional visitors and revenue.
“These are different tourists from those you find in [beach hotels in] Antalya,” said Fugen Kolsal, the owner of Oktogon Tourism, a travel agency in Istanbul that specialises in “biblical tours” and other offers for visitors interested in the history of early Christianity. “They are older, more conservative, they are open for the country and its people, they have more money, and they reach places where normal tourists will never go.”
A Religious Tourism Project, conducted by Turkey’s tourism ministry, aims to “increase the number of visitors to important centres” of religious history, most of which are connected to Christianity, the ministry said in a statement on its website.
The project includes the church of the original Santa Claus, St Nicholas, in Demre near Antalya; the so-called “House of Mother Mary” near Izmir, where, according to legend, the mother of Jesus lived after the death of her son; and the Hagia Sophia church in Iznik near Bursa, where bishops laid the theological foundations for today’s Christianity in meetings in the fourth and eighth century AD.
The Association of Turkish Travel Agencies, or Tursab, is planning a symposium on religious tourism in Antakya, the former Antiochia, this year. Antakya is known as the place where followers of Jesus were called Christians for the first time and where apostles Paul and Peter met.
A recent initiative by the Catholic Church has provided an additional impetus. Pope Benedict XVI officially launched the Vatican’s Year of St Paul on June 28. Paul, one of the most important followers of Jesus, was born in Tarsus – in what is today southern Turkey – 2,000 years ago. The St Paul Church in Tarsus, which has served as a museum, will be opened for religious services throughout the year.
“We are getting bookings for next year, especially because of the year of St Paul,” said Ilhan Ucak, the owner of Sempa Tur, a travel agency in Istanbul that organises religious tours.
In Tarsus itself, the Year of St Paul has started to make itself felt already. “We have more tourists than before,” said Nadir Durgun of the tourism department in the Tarsus municipality. He said a total of 16,322 tourists from more than 40 countries visited the city last year, but many more were expected this year, especially in September and October, when the summer heat is over.
The tourism ministry said in a recent statement that “millions of Christian pilgrims are expected to meet in Tarsus” in the Year of St Paul, but this expectation might be exaggerated, Mr Durgun said. “Perhaps 100,000 would be more realistic,” he said.
A city of 230,000 people that suffers from high unemployment after local textile factories closed, Tarsus is so dependent on the tourist trade that the arrival of bigger tour groups is celebrated as a major event in the city. “Tarsus has been inundated with tourists,” the local newspaper Tarsus reported after the visit of 1,000 US tourists in April.
Tarsus is planning to build more hotels to keep visitors in the city for longer, Mr Durgun said. “Right now, many people come by bus, look at St Paul’s Church and drive off again,” he said. A weak infrastructure in such places as Tarsus is only one reason holding religious tourism back. Recent events, such as the kidnapping of three German mountaineers by Kurdish rebels on the biblical Ararat Mountain in eastern Turkey, scare off potential visitors, said Ms Kolsal of Oktogon Tourism. “I have three tour groups going to eastern Turkey in the autumn, but I’m concerned that they will cancel. Every year there is something new” that keeps visitors away, she said.
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Also, Turkey has not yet made the most of its biblical and Christian heritage, Ms Kolsal said. “There is much still to be shown,” she said. But the rise in religious tourism has also led to fears in nationalist circles that the Christian West may try to claim Turkish territory and that Christian missionaries may try to exploit the opening of historic sites to convert Turkish Muslims to Christianity. The aim behind all the infrastructure improvements and restorations of Christian and ancient sites in Turkey was clear, the nationalist magazine Ufuk Otesi commented this month: “To take Anatolia, a former Christian territory, from our hand … Everything that is done under the motto of religious tourism only serves to put this plan into practice.”