Istanbul fears tourism backlash

Demonstrators setting fire to a Chinese flag during a protest near the Chinese consulate in Istanbul on Sunday. Many Turks feel ethnically and culturally close to the Uighurs in Xinjiang. Anger directed at China was fuelled by recent reports that Uig
Demonstrators setting fire to a Chinese flag during a protest near the Chinese consulate in Istanbul on Sunday. Many Turks feel ethnically and culturally close to the Uighurs in Xinjiang. Anger directed at China was fuelled by recent reports that Uighurs had been banned from fasting during Ramadan.PHOTO: REUTERS

Assaults on Chinese may put visitors off, as angry Turks plan more anti-China rallies

A spate of attacks targeting Chinese nationals by Turks angry with China's treatment of Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang has tourism authorities here worried that the incidents could scare off visitors.

Fresh protest action against China is planned for later this week.

Last Saturday, several dozen right-wing protesters targeted a group of Korean tourists outside Topkapi Palace, a top tourist destination in central Istanbul that attracts millions of visitors annually.

The attackers, who peeled off from a nearby protest against China's Xinjiang policy, mistook the Koreans for Chinese tourists, news reports said.

Police drove the attackers away from the Koreans with batons and pepper spray, a video of the incident posted on Turkish news websites showed.

"I'm not Chinese, I'm not Chinese, I'm Korean," a woman said as she was led away from the scene by Turkish tour guides. There were no reports of injuries or arrests.

In other recent protests, Turkish nationalists burned a Chinese flag near the Chinese consulate and attacked a Chinese restaurant whose owner was Turkish and chef was an Uighur.

The incidents prompted China to issue a travel advisory telling its people to be careful of anti-Beijing demonstrations in Turkey. They came shortly before Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is due to visit China later this month.

The Turkish authorities insisted that tourists from China and other Asian countries were safe.

"There is absolutely no danger," a police spokesman told The Straits Times yesterday.

The right-wing group behind the protest march near Topkapi Palace - the Istanbul chapter of Ulku Ocaklar, or Nationalist Hearth - denied involvement in the attack on the Koreans.

Turkistan Birligi, or Turkistan Union, another group campaigning against China's Xinjiang policy and against what it sees as the suppression of Muslims in other countries, called on supporters to gather for a new protest this Friday. In a statement on its website, it said the protest at a mosque in the Fatih district several kilometres north-west of Istanbul would be directed at Syria, Iran, Israel, the US as well as against "Chinese massacres".

Many Turks feel ethnically and culturally close to the Uighurs in Xinjiang, called Dogu Turkistan, or Eastern Turkistan, in Turkish. Nationalist anger directed at China was fuelled by recent reports that Uighurs had been banned from fasting in the current holy month of Ramadan.Turkey regards itself as a rising regional power with interests far beyond its own borders and as a guardian for Muslims everywhere.

Last week, a group of 173 Uighurs, who had been held in Thailand after fleeing Xinjiang, arrived for resettlement in Turkey.

There have been no reports of cancellations by Chinese or other Asian tour groups following the incident at Topkapi Palace.

Last year, around 200,000 Chinese visitors visited Turkey, up from about 115,000 in 2012, according to the Association of Turkish Travel Agencies. The number of visitors from Singapore rose from 22,000 to 29,000 in the same period.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 08, 2015, with the headline 'Istanbul fears tourism backlash'. Print Edition | Subscribe