Legal gambling carries with it both the promise of substantial government revenue and employment opportunities, but also the risk of negative externalities affecting public health and enabling money laundering. It was because of money laundering, in particular, that Turkey outlawed casinos in 1998. However, the rise of Chinese tourism is providing a justification around the world for countries to relegalize casinos in countries where such establishments are banned, and Turkey is no exception.

Timur Bayindir, President of the Turkish Hoteliers Association (TÜROB) is hoping that Turkey can legalize casinos.

Bayindir noted, “Some 261 million Chinese travel around the world, but less than 1 million Chinese tourists visit Turkey” He went on to argue, “Chinese love gambling and they spend a lot of money. That is the bottom line. If we do not open casinos, we will not be able to attract more Chinese tourists.”

It’s unclear the source of Bayindir’s statistics, as the most recent estimates for the total number of outbound trips from China in 2017 was 129 million.

“If we do not open casinos, we will not be able to attract more Chinese tourists”

These comments come at a time when Turkey is struggling to attract Chinese tourists, it’s perhaps for this reason that 2018 has been declared the “Turkey Tourism Year.” As Jing Travel has pointed out before, official “tourism years” often correlate with tourism growth struggling.

The latest statistics available from Turkey’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism show that Chinese tourism saw a sharp decline in 2016. 2014, 2015, and 2016 saw Chinese arrival figures of 199,746, 313,704, and 167,570 respectively. This represents a drop of 46 percent between 2015 and 2016.

Chinese tourism to Turkey recovered substantially in 2017, but it’s still unknown to what extent.

Chinese arrivals to Turkey dropped by 46 percent between 2015 and 2016

Security concerns have been a major contributor to an overall decline in international arrivals to Turkey in the past few years. In particular, the ongoing Syrian Civil War and an attempted coup have raised concerns that Turkey is not a safe destination. 2016 was called a “year of devastating losses” by some media outlets.

As we at Jing Travel have noted in our free terrorism and Chinese tourism report, Chinese tourists are significantly more sensitive to security concerns than tourists from other markets.

Turkish tourism stakeholders hope to attract 1 million Chinese arrivals in 2018.

Without numbers for 2017, it’s hard to gauge how much of an increase is needed to reach 1 million Chinese tourists in 2018. However, even optimistically using figures from 2015, the country has a gap of some 700,000 more tourists, or an increase of around 230 percent, in a single year needed to reach the lofty goal of 1 million.

It seems unlikely that Turkey will reach its lofty goal of 1 million Chinese tourists in 2018

It’s clear that there are fundamental issues with Turkey as a destination that is holding it back from realizing its full potential. Security is one part of the problem, but the country also remains a relatively distant and expensive destination for Chinese tourists.

Casinos will not address these deficiencies and unfortunately, there may be little that tourism stakeholders can do ameliorate this situation in the short term.

While casinos are illegal in Turkey, Bayindir is proposing only making them available to foreigners

Nonetheless, in the long-term, casinos could very well encourage growth in Chinese tourism to Turkey. Many countries, especially in Southeast Asia, are turning to gambling to give them an edge in attracting Chinese tourists, as casinos are illegal in China (excluding Macau).

Much like in Turkey, many of these countries, like Cambodia and Vietnam, have laws banning locals from gambling at casinos. In Myanmar, casinos are altogether illegal, but still operate in border regions and cater to Thai and Chinese tourists. Russia too has very strict laws regulating casinos, but they are permitted in four administrative regions. The closest to China being in Primorsky Krai.

Bayindir wants to implement a similar system for Turkey so that only foreign passport holders can gamble at casinos. However, it seems unlikely that Turkey will have enough time to change gambling laws and construct casinos in time for using it as a tool to reach 1 million Chinese arrivals this year.