Istanbul: Facing east, Looking west

31 May 2015 by Tom Otley
Istanbul New Airport
Turkey is fast becoming a major world player. One of the “MINT” countries tipped by economist Jim O’Neill as a global giant of the future (the others being Mexico, Indonesia and Nigeria), its largest city is regularly ranked in lists of destinations to watch out for. “We are described as an emerging world city,” says Ozgul Yavuz, general manager of the Istanbul Convention and Visitors Bureau. In 2013, Forbes ranked Istanbul as the 11th-fastest-growing megacity, while last year consultancy AT Kearney placed it 15th in its Emerging Cities Outlook. Still, perhaps “re-emerging” would be more accurate. Straddling Europe and Asia, and home to 14 million people, Istanbul has previously been the capital of three epochal empires – Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman. KPMG’s 2014 Global Cities Investment Monitor put Istanbul in the top 25 for  “global attractiveness” – its appeal to new business and greenfield investments (multinationals constructing new facilities from scratch). While Turkey’s GDP has fluctuated in recent years, the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) highlights some eye-catching figures. With an average growth rate of 5 per cent in the past decade, it is the fastest-emerging market among European and OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) member countries. The OECD projects Turkey as the third-fastest-growing country after China and India by 2017 – and says it will overtake India after that. The FCO also notes the country’s young population. Turkey has 76 million people with half below the age of 30, and a labour force of 28 million, the biggest young population and fourth-largest labour force compared with EU members (Turkey has not yet joined the union). Yavuz, meanwhile, highlights the importance of the meetings sector. Istanbul was ranked eighth by the International Congress and Convention Association for the number of international meetings held in 2013 – up from 36th place in 2000. For meetings of between 300 and 500 delegates, it was ranked number one. Yavuz says the catalyst was when Istanbul hosted the 1996 UN Habitat Conference, turning one of the city’s major sports arenas into a conference hall, now the Lutfi Kirdar Convention and Exhibition Centre. The following year, the convention bureau was founded. “Everything accelerated after that,” she says. “We have lots of potential and advantages because, geographically, we are in the middle of the world. [But] we have to invest more to grow.” The bureau’s offices are in the UNESCO World Heritage-listed historic district, a few steps from the sprawling Grand Bazaar. One of the world’s oldest covered markets, people have been trading here since the 15th century, and its 5,000 shops are a dazzling riot of colours, sounds and scents. While the bazaar is part of the city’s splendid heritage, its present-day reality focuses on retailing of a different kind – there are 105 malls and enough luxury brands to take on Paris or London. The new Istanbul is a place of spectacular infrastructure projects, a burgeoning financial centre, free trade zones and investment incentives, with growth in industry sectors from life sciences to telecoms. Much of the investment being made in infrastructure is related to transport. A third bridge over the Bosphorus strait will link the European and Asian sides of the city and is due to open this year. It will be the world’s longest combined motorway and railway bridge. A double-deck “Euro-Asia” highway tunnel under the seabed is also under construction and is scheduled for completion in 2017. The trans-Bosphorus metro tunnel, which opened in late 2013, has already seen more than 50 million people travel through it. However, stealing the limelight from these projects is what is expected to be one of the world’s largest airports, with six runways and an eventual capacity of 150 million passengers per year – which would be the world’s biggest by passenger volume. Istanbul Grand Airport is planned to open in 2018 and will feature four terminals, parking for 500 aircraft (and 70,000 cars), hotels and a convention centre. Flag carrier Turkish Airlines has an ambitious and aggressive growth strategy, and its senior vice president media relations, Ali Genc, says the new airport will play a key role in these plans. “Our passenger numbers have been growing on average 17 per cent annually,” he says. “The fleet is currently 262 aircraft – by 2020 it will be more than 400. The new airport will support this growth, and we will have an opportunity to make our transfer product more attractive and competitive compared with other hubs.” The airline and the convention bureau have a close relationship – Turkish Airlines chief executive Temel Kotil is on the convention's board – and they recognise each other’s importance to the region’s progress. Yavuz says the airline’s growing international network helps to position Istanbul as a hub. “The growth of Turkish Airlines has added a lot to Istanbul – it makes us more and more central,” she says. The airline now flies to 261 destinations in 108 countries. Technology and distribution giant Travelport recently opened a new operator office in Istanbul. Rabih Saab, its regional president and managing director for Africa, Middle East and South Asia, says Turkey benefits from its location between two continents. “Turkish businesses are able to deal with the more established Western markets and are also profiting from the high growth rates being experienced in the Middle East and Asian economies,” he says. “As a result, the country is attracting large amounts of foreign investment interest, and creating a lot of personal and corporate wealth.” This is reflected in the hotel sector. Recent high-profile openings include Raffles Istanbul (see businesstraveller.asia/tried-and-tested/hotels for a review) and the Shangri-La Bosphorus in May 2013. St Regis, Mercure and Soho House properties are due to open this year, and the Steigenberger Hotel Istanbul Airport will follow in 2016. Vito Romeo, general manager of the Shangri-La Bosphorus, says the city was one of the first three “strategically chosen locations” in Europe when the group started expanding out of Asia along with Paris and London. “Istanbul stands out as a key hub,” he says. “It has authentic history and culture, unique attractions and high-quality service levels delivered by a wide choice of international and local hospitality brands.” Even so, it’s not all plain sailing on the Bosphorus. Turkey’s volatile neighbours include Syria, Iraq and Iran, and the so-called IS caliphate is too close for comfort. According to Middle East news channel Al Monitor, there are about 1.6 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, equivalent to a 2.1 per cent increase in the population. Driving around the sophisticated city centre, it feels European, but one of the few obvious signs of its proximity to Middle Eastern turmoil are the Syrian children darting dangerously between cars at traffic lights, wiping windscreens for a few lira. Talk to the locals, too, and you’ll hear plenty of gripes about the government, from Kurdish rights and freedom of speech to the controversial new 1,100-room presidential palace in Ankara, nicknamed the “White Palace” in reference to the US White House, which it dwarfs. Still, with three empires under its belt and more than 1,000 years on the world stage, it’s a fair bet that Istanbul will overcome its hurdles. ARTISTIC VISION Time to spare between meetings? A visit to Istanbul Modern provides a fascinating insight into today’s Turkey, writes Tom Otley The first-time visitor to Istanbul will no doubt focus on the ancient sites – Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Ottoman cisterns and the Topkapi Palace. More regular visitors, taking time out from business meetings or perhaps returning after a few years away, may appreciate attractions that are more representative of the modern Turkey and Istanbul. Top of the list must be Istanbul Modern, housed in a renovated warehouse on the banks of the Bosphorus. Founded in the 1980s, and in its present location since 2004, the museum is privately funded by the Eczacibasi family and relies on commercial sponsorship and admission fees for its championing of Turkish and global modern art. Covering 8,000 sqm, the museum has both temporary exhibitions and a permanent collection of art from the 20th century. Called “Past and Future”, the latter features some 180 works by 136 local and international artists, presented chronologically to show the development of modern and contemporary art in Turkey. The basement floor is dedicated to temporary shows as well as the gallery’s library. Here, you can’t miss the eye-catching work by Richard Wentworth – “False Ceiling”– made of hundreds of British and Turkish books (pictured). International pieces such as this have been a result of collaborations with London’s Design Museum, the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin, Athens’ Benaki Museum, the Verbund Collection in Vienna and the Thessaloniki and Moscow photography biennales. A major exhibition this year, until August 2, is “Magnum – Contact Sheets”, which explores the creative process behind some of the world’s most iconic photographs from the Magnum Photos agency. Current shows include “Painter and Painting: A Mehmet Güleryüz Retrospective”, a collection of Güleryüz's work from the 1960s to the 2010s (until June 28), and a young architect’s programme held in collaboration with New York’s Museum of Modern Art (June 10-November 15). Whatever is showing, it has to be striking to compete with the exhibition space. Floor-to-ceiling windows  have views across the Golden Horn, while a superb restaurant with a balcony will turn a visit of a few hours into half a day. Istanbul Modern is open Tues-Sun 10am-6pm, Thurs until 8pm; entry TL19 (US$7). Restaurant open 10am-12pm. istanbulmodern.org/en
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