Turkey has been unable to exploit its full faith tourism potential and the number of faith tourists visiting Turkey last year hit a 10-year low, according to the latest report by the Association of Turkish Travel Agencies (TÜRSAB). Sector representatives, however, are hopeful for a rise in the number of faith tourists in the near future after Pope Francis’ visit to Turkey in November.
A record-high number of faith tourists visited Turkey in 2007 after the House of the Virgin Mary in the Aegean province of Selçuk hosted Pope Benedict in 2006. Over 144,000 faith tourists came and visited Turkey in 2007, the highest-number ever, but a sharp decrease started to be observed in the number of faith tourists since 2010, according to the TÜRSAB report.
TÜRSAB Vice-President Hande Arslanalp put the drop down to a number of reasons, chief among these being the bloody conflicts in the country’s southern neighbors.
“Turkey hosted just 59,000 faith tourists last year – the lowest level since the beginning of the 2000s. It welcomed 55,000 faith tourists in the first half of this year, and we expect to reach around 100,000 by the end of this year. We also expect a slight rise in this number after Pope Francis’ visit,” Arslanalp said.
More than 300 million people across the world travel for religious purposes every year, spending a yearly average total of $20 billion, according to the TÜRSAB report. The average 461,000 Turks who visit Mecca for religious purposes spend a total of around $1.1 billion every year, around 5 percent of the total.
There are religious sites in more than 43 cities across Turkey, many of which host sites that are of significance to all three Abrahamic religions, Arslanalp also said, adding that despite such unique richness Turkey has up to now been unable to realize its potential.
“We need to do more to make our religious sites known across the world,” Arslanalp said.
“After Pope Benedict’s visit to the House of the Virgin Mary in 2006, we saw a dramatic rise in the number of faith tourists in 2007. We believe there will also be some rise after Pope Francis’ visit in November. If Pope Francis had also visited the House of Virgin Mary, we could have expected an even larger rise,” she added.
Other holy sites that deserve attention in Turkey include the St. Peter Museum in the southern province of Hatay, the St. Paul Museum in Tarsus, and the St. Nicholas Church in Demre, Arslanalp also said.
The House of the Virgin Mary in Selçuk has been visited by three popes – Pope Paul VI in 1967, Pope John Paul II in 1976 and Pope Benedict XVI in 2006.
In the list of the most visited holy sites in the world, Istanbul’s Sultanahmet Mosque (Blue Mosque) ranks 20th, while the Hagia Sophia ranks 29th.