Cutting off trade with Syria frustrates people in Hatay

By: Aydin Albayrak

Hatay seems to have lost on two accounts due to deteriorating relations with Syria because of the Assad regime’s crackdown on civilian protestors.

Antakya’s Uzun Çarşı, a sort of traditional covered bazaar that Syrian tourists frequently visited before the violent crackdown began in the country is today occupied only by shopkeepers. (Photo: Today's Zaman)

First, although the two border gates that connect the province to Syria, Cilvegözü and Yayladağı, are open, the border trade — through which $200-250,000 was estimated to flow into Hatay yearly — has completely stopped because of the chaotic situation in Syria and the suspension of a free-trade agreement by Syria. Second, Antakya, the provincial capital, has slowed its progress towards becoming a center for conventions and meetings as well as a major destination for domestic tourists. What made the city so attractive, apart from a rich historical background and tasty local dishes, was the fact that visitors were also able to visit a foreign country; Syria’s Aleppo is only about 100 kilometers away, and visitors were able to go on a day trip for less than $100.

The Ottoman Palace Hotel, one of the most prestigious in the region, was built three-and-a-half years ago with a view to attract conventions and commercial meetings to Antakya. “[After the tension in Syria began] we lost 50 percent of our convention visitors. The main reason that businesses and domestic tourist groups choose Antakya as a meeting spot was because people could travel to Syria and back in one day,” Ali Şenak, the general manager of the hotel, told Today’s Zaman. The hotel has not only lost convention groups but also regular Arab clients, mainly Syrians, who have disappeared, accounting for about a 25 percent loss in total sales.

Hikmet Çinçin, president of the Antakya Chamber of Commerce and Industry, informed Today’s Zaman that several months ago there were 14 new construction permits to build hotels, but work had begun at only one or two of them. It seems the remaining hotel projects were just put aside.

Mahmut Narin, owner of the Ekrem Narin Import & Export Company, which exports various foodstuffs to the Middle East, believes that even if all Turkish exports to Syria come to a halt, it would not have a large adverse effect on Turkey’s trade because exports to Syria do not represent any more than 10 percent of regional trade. “Alternative trade routes to replace Syria, though a little more costly, could be put into use,” he told Today’s Zaman. “Small losses in profit should be happily suffered because the Syrian issue is first and foremost a humanitarian issue,” he added.

But Çinçin insists, “It’s not possible for us to ignore violence and oppression, but Turkey should also protect its interests.” He is referring to transportation companies, which have to pay installments to the banks for nearly 75 percent of their trucks, as well as retail shops in the province, which benefit considerably from Syrian visitors. The disappearance of Syrian tourists from the streets has cost most shop owners in downtown Antakya a minimum loss of 20 percent. The figure is generally higher, 30 to 50 percent, for stores that sell women’s clothes, glassware and local foodstuffs.

Derviş Borucu, a store keeper who sells items such as shoes and women’s handbags at Uzun Çarşı, a sort of traditional covered bazaar which Syrian tourists frequented in Antakya, says his sales have dropped by 30 percent. “There used to be 10-15 buses of people from Syria on Friday and Saturday, but no more,” he says worriedly.

Cab drivers have also suffered considerable losses. “Without the Syrians, our earnings have dropped by half,” Hasan Hammuşoğlu, a cab driver, told Today’s Zaman. Syrians used to take taxis to a shopping mall in İskenderun, a town nearly 60 kilometers from Antakya. A new shopping mall was opened only two months ago in Antakya. But now no Syrians are around.

But it’s not all gloom and doom. Ali Kavak, president of the Fresh Fruit and Vegetables Exporters Union of the Mediterranean Region, told Today’s Zaman that although transportation costs have increased because Syria has raised taxes for Turkish goods and trucks by 50 percent, the goods still reach their final destinations in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait.

The crisis with Syria is sure to dim near-future prospects in the border province of Hatay, as summarized by Çinçin: “Economic revival was injecting morale into the whole region. Because you market to the future, the city gained value in recent years. But right now our morale is a little low.”

Source: Sunday’s Zaman

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