With their favorite television shows in mind, tourists from Arab countries are journeying to Istanbul in ever-greater numbers to see the homes and sites they know so well thanks to satellite broadcasting. Bookings for tours are taking off.
Cem Polatoğlu has a hard time believing it, but in a period of just one year, Baracuda, his travel agency that targets the Arab world, has doubled its number of clients. And for Polatoğlu, there is no other explanation than the popular TV series, and in particular “Noor” (Gümüş in Turkish, Silver in English) and its main character, a blue-eyed, dashing Kıvanç Tatlıtuğ, are part of the origins of this flux.
“Before, we used to take Arab tourists to mosques in Istanbul. We used to go to hot water springs in Bursa. Now no one wants to go to the springs,” he told Agence France Presse. “Everyone wants to visit the houses where the TV series were filmed and eat in restaurants that appeared on the series.”
The series “Noor,” aired by Saudi-owned MBC satellite television, focuses on the relationship between Mehmet, whose name in the Arabic version is Mohannad and his wife Noor. From Saudi Arabia to Morocco the series has drawn millions of people to their TV sets, with 24-year-old Tatlıtuğ bewitching female viewers across the Arab world. In Saudi Arabia a large-scale farmer reportedly sold her herds of sheep so she could spend her evenings in front of the television, undisturbed.
The final episode of the series attracted nearly 85 million viewers across the Arab world, a record for Arab television. Noor is one of about a dozen Turkish TV series shown in the Arab world, which include the historical drama “Broken Wings.”
According to Polatoğlu, more than a dozen travel agencies in Istanbul have included tours of the areas in which the series take place. Some tourists are even ready to pay up to 60 Turkish Liras to visit the villa that is home to Noor and Mohannad.
One aspect of many
Turkey has become a shining star in the eyes of Arab countries and for more than just its performance on television.
The Justice and Development Party, or AKP’s, efforts to boost ties with Muslim countries and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s “one minute” showdown in Davos against Israel have contributed greatly, and even though the number of Israeli tourists in Turkey has seen a sharp drop this year, the interest from Arab tourists is gaining momentum.
Statistics show that the popular TV series are boosting Turkey’s tourism industry. While the global economic crisis has brought the number of tourists down 1 percent in Turkey over the first six months of 2009, the number of Arab tourists has increased from between 21 percent (the rise in visitors from the United Arab Emirates) to 50 percent (rise in visitors from Morocco), according to official tourism data.
Seeking Noor in Istanbul
A short boat trip on the Bosphorus with Arab tourists on board reveals the effects of the TV series. In front of the Dolmabahçe and Beylerbeyi Palaces, passengers display polite interest. Yet, once the guide announces a break in front of the villa where Noor was filmed, the boat starts rocking with excited shouts and the sound of clicking cameras fills the air.
“Every Jordanian watches Noor and Mohannad, everybody. When people learned that I was going to Turkey, they told me to go see Mrs. Noor and Mr. Mohannad and tell them to come to Jordan,” Bacher Ali Madjali said.
“The soap opera is one of the reasons that made me come to Turkey. My family members had previously encouraged me to visit this country. Yet it is the images in the soap opera that have given me an idea of Istanbul,” said Fadih Ferrah, a Palestinian who lives in Kuwait.
For Ayman Maslamani, president of the travel agency Heysem, it is the beautiful backgrounds that reveal the charms of the city, rather than the sentimental relationships between the television heroes that attract the tourists.
“Previously, Arabs did not know much about Turkey. They thought it was a backward country, filthy, and not too advanced compared to some Arab countries. But after they watched the series and saw images of the Bosphorus, they wanted to come. It has been a real explosion,” Maslamani said.
The surge in the Arab world’s interest in Turkish popular culture reflects cultural and religious similarities between the Arabs and the predominantly Muslim yet secular Turkey that is trying to join the European Union. Still, the soaps sometimes depict social phenomena unseen in some Arab countries. Mohannad is a man that treats his wife as an equal, who supports her in her professional career as a fashion designer, and is loving and understanding. He brings her flowers after a quarrel, surprises her with presents and a romantic vacation. Before marrying Noor he had premarital sex, lost his girlfriend in a traffic accident only to find out later that she was carrying his child. A cousin has an abortion and alcohol is consumed during dinner.
The Ottoman Empire ruled the Arab world for centuries. But the recent history of the Turkish Republic, its close ties to the Western world, its high level of women’s emancipation and its secular system used to bring out wariness in the Arab world against Turkey. But it seems some aspects of modern Turkey are no longer sources of contempt for Arab viewers, even though Noor has courted some controversy. Prominent Saudi cleric Sheikh al Luhaidan denounced the series as evil, saying it was permissible to kill satellite TV executives for broadcasting “indecent material.” But the fatwa has not dented the series’ popularity, nor dissuaded Arabs from heeding their growing interest in Turkey and paying a visit to the former imperial capital, Istanbul.