First Russian tourist flight since crisis lands in Turkish resort

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ISTANBUL: The first Russian flight carrying package tourists to Turkey since a diplomatic crisis erupted eight months ago landed on Saturday in the Turkish Mediterranean resort of Antalya.

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The Rossiya Airlines plane touched down at Antalya’s international airport at around 0730 GMT, after President Vladimir Putin last month officially lifted restrictions on tourism to Turkey.

The Boeing 737-800 plane, flying from Moscow’s Vnukovo airport, was carrying 189 tourists, NTV television said.

Russia had banned the sale of agency tours to Turkey as retaliation for Ankara shooting down a Russian warplane in November on the Syrian border.

The move dealt a crushing blow to the Turkish tourism industry, which is hugely reliant on Russian tourists especially on its Mediterranean coast.

‘Russian tourism down 90%’

In May, overall foreign visitor numbers to Turkey plunged 34.7 percent but the number of Russians visiting fell 91.8 percent from the year earlier, official statistics said.

According to Antalya airport, the number of Russian tourists had dropped 98.5 percent in June along with a general decline in tourism.

Visitors have reported seeing luxury resorts around Antalya tailor-made for Russians — including a replica of Moscow’s St Basil’s Cathedral by a swimming pool in one hotel — to be near deserted.

However Putin on June 30 lifted the ban on the sale of tours and ordered charter flights from Russia to Turkey to resume.

His move came after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sent a letter to Putin that Moscow said contained an apology for the downing of the jet.

Analysts say that Ankara was keen to repair its relations with Moscow after the crisis with a key regional neighbor left Turkey dangerously isolated on the international stage.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev on Friday gave ministries a week to draw up coordinated proposals on resuming charter flights to Turkey.

But he said there needed to be “special attention on the need for additional measures to enhance transport security and prevent flights to regions with a high terrorist threat.”

‘Charter-like flight’

Underlining the importance of Saturday’s flight, a special ceremony was laid on for the new arrivals at the airport to give a good impression of Turkish hospitality, local media said.

The deputy governor of Antalya, Mehmet Yavuz, said it was better to describe the arrival as a “charter-like flight” as while Moscow had allowed the selling of tours, it was still to give formal approval for charter flights.

“As you know, a charter flight is one that has been rented by a tourist company. This was a normal airline flight,” said Yavuz, who is responsible for the airport.

“Because these are all tourists who bought a package holiday, we must say ‘a charter-like flight’. This is because the Russian government has yet to give permission to charter flights (to fly to Turkey),” he said, quoted by Turkish media.

A spokesperson for Rossiya Airlines told Agence France-Presse in Moscow said the flight was the “first of the 2016 summer season” by the airline from Moscow to Antalya and had been performed with the full cooperation of the Turkish authorities.

The Turkish tourism industry is expected to be dealt another blow by tourists staying away following the June 28 triple suicide attack blamed on jihadists at Ataturk International Airport in Istanbul that killed 47 people.

Aside from the Russian crisis, the tourism industry had already been dealt repeated blows by a string of attacks in Turkey blamed on Islamic State jihadists and Kurdish militants. AFP

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