Istanbul beats London and Rome to top of travels

TripAdvisor reports that Istanbul is the world’s favourite destination. We take a look at some of the reasons behind the city’s rapid ascension to the world tourism stage. Step aside Rome, move over London - the world’s favourite city is now Istanbul.

Moon over Istanbul Bosporus Bridge

Review site TripAdvisor analysed millions of reviews and ratings to discover that the Turkish city, a newcomer to the top 10, is now the favourite destination worldwide. 

Rome and London come in second and third respectively. TripAdvisor spokesman James Kay said: "These awards are based on millions of reviews and ratings by those that really matter - travellers themselves. 

Record numbers of visitors are heading to Istanbul, a city of 14 million people that straddles two continents, amalgamating the best aspects of eastern and western cultures. Below, we examine the factors behind Istanbul’s newfound popularity.

Rapid growth in tourism last 10 years

Istanbul’s tourist growth has been swift. In 2003, the city had 3.1 million visitors. By 2012, this number had tripled to 9.3 million. During the same period the numbers of tourists visiting Turkey reached 36 million, up from 16 in 2003. No longer seen as merely a gateway to the country’s ‘sun, sea and sand’ destinations, Istanbul is now a destination in its own right. In 2010 visitors stayed in the city for an average length of 2.1 days, before going on to spend six or seven days on the coast. Today, the average visitor length is 4.2 days. This is remarkable considering this growth has taken place during the worst of the global economic crisis, and defies critics, who claimed tourism would take a huge hit after last year’s protests, centred around Taksim Square. In fact, tourism grew by 4% last year and the Consumer Confidence Index increased by 5%. 

The graph shows top 10 foreign tourist arrivals by country in 2011. According to 'the world tourism barometer', at the end of 2011, Turkey was slightly ahead of the UK and trailing behind Italy and Spain. However, the most striking statistic is that out of top 10 countries, Turkey had the largest year-on-year increase by far by almost 9%.  It is expected that at this rate of growth, by year 2019, Turkey will overtake Spain positioning itself as the 4th largest tourist destination in the world.  In 2013, Turkey's total tourist figures amounted to almost 40 million, which is 37% above figures achieved in 2011. In other words, from 2011 to 2013, Turkey's tourist numbers increased by 37%.  None of the top 10 countries in the graph experienced similar levels of increases in as little as 2 years. Turkey's performance seems to dwarf all others.    

The gateway city

Istanbul has always been an important world destination. Once the capital of the Ottoman Empire, the city became a major port and a gateway to Europe and Asia, attracting traders from all over the world. From the 1880s to the 1970s Istanbul was synonymous with the Orient Express, the beginning and end point for the famous long distance passenger train. However, it wasn’t until the 1980s that Istanbul and wider Turkey began to make a concerted effort to attract visitor numbers. 

Istanbul bridge Bosporus OrtakoyIn 1982 a series of tourism encouragement laws were passed. These mainly affected the coastal regions, who received grants to help boost tourism revenue. Coastal regions such as Bodrum and the Turkish Mediterranean quickly began to benefit from increased visitor numbers, improving infrastructure and honing hospitality.

In the 1990s the focus shifted. Where there was once a strong focus on the promotion of ‘sun, sea and sand’-type tourism that had previously driven revenue, tourism officials were now looking to capitalise on Turkey’s other attributes, aiming to promote the country as a year-round destination. The time to capitalise on Turkey’s cultural variety and richness was well overdue, and eyes turned to Istanbul, where a rich cultural heritage and a wealth of museums, exhibitions and festivals made it the perfect year-round city. 

Infrastructure and tourism AND the world's largest airport to come....

An established port for centuries, Istanbul is the Turkey’s crossroads, with transport links extending across the country and out into the wider world. There are two airports, and the larger of the two, Ataturk International, has become one of the biggest in the world. To meet demand, a third airport (Istanbul New Airport) is currently under construction. When completed, the airport will be the largest in the world with an operating capacity of 150 million passengers every year.

Other projects include Erdogan’s ambitious Bosporus projects: a new bridge over the Strait, and a new waterway that will run parallel to the Bosporus (Kanal Istanbul Project). These developments will have an enormous impact on their local neighbourhoods - both good and bad - but the positive impact on tourism will be undeniable. Impact on Istanbul real estate will be paramount, needless to say - and those looking to buy hotels in Istanbul are increasingly no end.. 

The city’s hotel industry is also growing quickly, with thousands of hotels catering to every kind of visitor from honeymooners to business professionals, and more hotels being built each year.The world’s biggest hospitality names are all found in Istanbul: Four Seasons, Hyatt, Swissotel and Kempinski are just a few. This year will see further additions to this ‘who’s who’ list of hotel behemoths, including Raffles, and a seventh hotel from giant Marriott.

Istanbul is also a shopper’s paradise, and has become one of the biggest shopping centres in the European region, with an abundance of malls and luxury stores, including Cevahir Mall, the largest of its kind in Europe and the seventh largest in the world. 

Around and about

Thirty years ago visitors visiting Istanbul were rather limited in their options. Historical buildings and mosques and some passable restaurants were all a tourist could expect. Fast forward to today: TripAdvisor’s Istanbul page lists 633 attractions in the city, a bewildering array of activities ranging from visiting historical favourite the Blue Mosque, to trying out the city’s hippest shisha bars to paintballing. The government has wisely poured investment into the city’s cultural and historical attractions, ensuring every tourist site is well run. And no more dingy restaurants - Istanbul is now home to some of the best eateries in the world, including one or two Michelin starred restaurants. 

Bosporus Istanbul views

Visitors comment that Istanbul is a city of contrasts. Where Asia collides with Europe, and old meets new as historical buildings rub shoulders with steel and glass skyscrapers. It’s an intriguing mix, and one that tourists are happily discovering. TripAdvisor’s ranking is an extremely positive result for a city that has worked so hard to propel itself into a new era of tourism.


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