Istanbul restaurants change tune to woo big-spending Arabs

In the Turkish restaurants around Taksim Square in Istanbul, the menus are getting a new look. It’s not so much the food that is changing but the languages, as more and more restaurateurs choose to include Arabic.

Erkan Ali Karabulut, manager of Cafe Eylül in the touristic Talimhane district near the square, is reprinting his menus this year. “If you speak Arabic with Arabic tourists, they see you as a friend, and feel more comfortable,” he said.

“But sometimes I get negative reactions from Turks. ‘Why is everything here in Arabic?’ they ask. They get very jealous.” Pointing to the list of MP3 songs on his laptop, he added: “I now play English music, as a compromise. But in the evenings, it’s all Arabic.”

Turkey has made much over the past year of its growing influence in the Arab world. Less well documented is the growing Arab influence within Turkey. The Turkish tourism sector, once the preserve of semi-adventurous westerners, is now dominated by Arabs. Last year, there were approximately 3-million visitors from Arab countries.

Improved dialogue
Abdullah Korun, owner of the Haci Abdullah restaurant in Beyoglu, said about two-thirds of his patrons now came from Arab countries: “This increase started about two years ago,” he said.

“I think that Turkey’s much improved dialogue and co-operation with Arab countries is the main reason for this development. Turkish businessmen are now profiting from our government’s foreign policies.”

Arab diners are, moreover, a more generous, Epicurean bunch than their European counterparts.

Ramazan Bingöl, head of the Association of All Restaurants, Eateries and Suppliers and owner of the Ramazan Bingöl Et restaurant, said: “Ten Arab guests spend as much money as 40 guests from a western country. They don’t come with tour buses, and do not want to eat fixed menus at a fixed price.”

According to numbers published by the Turkish tourism industry, Arab tourists spent approximately £1 700 per person in shops and restaurants, nearly four times as much as western tourists.

Drawing the crowds
Shopping centres, one of the main attractions to many Arab tourists, have started to adapt their marketing strategies: Cevahir mall, where Arabs constitute 80% of all foreign shoppers, has put up a tax-free office at its entrance and organises autograph sessions with Turkish actors, many of whom are very popular in the Arab world, owing to the success of Turkish TV series there.

One restaurant in the Forum Istanbul, another shopping centre popular with Arab tourists, took all pork-based meals off its menu. Several restaurant managers in Cevahir mall said they would add Arabic translations to their menus this year.

Cemil Kahraman, managing director of an Italian restaurant in the shopping centre, said that the display of alcoholic drinks did not keep out diners from Arab countries or from Iran.

“Some ask us to prepare sauces without wine, but that’s all. We offer a halal menu as well.” He laughed. “But not all of them care, and some are happy to enjoy Italian cuisine, and a good glass of wine at the side.”

There is a knock-on benefit for the approximately 1-million ethnic Arabs who live in Turkey, mostly in the south-eastern regions. Their language skills are in ever higher demand in tourism hotspots — and in restaurants.

Shared tastes
“[Restaurants] used to look for English-speaking staff, but now Arabic has become more important for many of them,” said Bingöl.

In his own restaurant he has noticed a 40% increase of diners from Arabic countries in the last year alone.

“Most of them come from the Gulf countries, from Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates,” he said.

“They feel comfortable about travelling in Turkey because we share many things culturally. Taste-wise their own cuisine is very close to that of Turkey, too.” —

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