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Turkey's tourism industry shrugs off protest fears

Taksim square
In this Sunday, June 2, 2013 photo an employee of a hotel pushes a trolley with bags of tourists, unseen, after a night protest at Taksim square of Istanbul. Turkey has seen the largest anti-government protests in years in the last week, as protesters and riot police clash in Istanbul, Ankara and some other cities. Turkey says it attracted more than 31.5 million foreign tourists in 2011, ranking it among the top 10 most popular tourist destination nations in the world, according to its tourism website.Thanassis Stavrakis / AP

Turkey, a largely Muslim nation that bridges Europe and Asia, has a flourishing tourist industry based on ancient historical sites and ruins, a world-ranked metropolis in Istanbul, wide sandy Mediterranean beaches and stunning regions of natural beauty.

A look at the industry as Turkey is hit by its largest anti-government demonstrations in years:

THE NUMBERS

Turkey attracted more than 37.7 million visitors in 2012, according to the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, which says the country is among the top 10 most popular tourist destinations in the world. Over 5.2 million visitors have arrived already this year, a nearly 14 percent increase over the same period in 2012, it says.

Some 378,000 U.S. residents visited Turkey in 2011, the latest year in which figures are available, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

While protesters and riot police have clashed for days in Istanbul, Ankara and other cities over the past week, the museums, monuments and ancient treasures that tourists flock to have largely stayed open.

Basaran Ulusoy, the head of Turkey's tourism agencies' association, TURSAB, acknowledged there had been some cancellations and postponements since the protests began last week but did not give a figure. "We are trying to turn the cancellations into postponements," Ulusoy told Turkey's business TV station CNBC-e.

— Associated Press writer Beth Harpaz in New York and AP writer Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey

ISTANBUL, JEWEL OF THE BOSPORUS

This sprawling city on the Bosporus Strait is so laden with world-famous tourist attractions it's hard to know where to begin: the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, the famed bath houses.

Yet Istanbul's main tourist attractions are a fair distance — at least 30 minutes — from Taksim Square and Besiktas, where most of the violence has broken out, and tourists were still lining up for entrance tickets.

"We heard about the protests but we didn't see that as a threat," said John Bradberry, a U.S. investor waiting to see the Hagia Sophia, the church that became a mosque and is now a museum. "We didn't change any of our plans and arrived here and we are just astonished of how beautiful and peaceful and wonderful it was."

At nearby Sultanahmet, Istanbul's old city, Gianluca Cassandro, a 25-year-old radiology technician from Italy, said he had heard about the protests a day before he left Venice but decided to enjoy his vacation here anyway.

Some tourists ventured into Taksim Square in the morning, when the situation was quiet and protesters were mainly sleeping off the previous night's tear gas. One woman from Egypt said she came to Turkey on vacation every year but this year she went specifically to Taksim to encourage the protesters.

Still, the crowds in the city were far smaller than usual at this time of year, and some events, like the Istanbul International Arts and Culture Festival, were postponed.

—AP writer Elena Becatoros in Istanbul

ON THE STREETS, SWEPT ALONG

Krupali Tejura, a radiation oncologist from Newport Beach, California, was on vacation in Istanbul last week when the protests began. On Friday, she wandered over to Taksim Square without understanding what was going on.

"The Internet and Twitter were down and my hotel only had Turkish TV," she said in a phone interview Tuesday. Once she got to the area, the tear gas and pepper spray were so strong that "you couldn't even breathe. A stranger gave me a mask to help me out." Others sprayed her face with vinegar to neutralize the airborne irritants.

Tejura began to take photos and videos with her iPhone, and strangers offered her access to their home Wi-Fi passwords as she passed by.

"The generosity of strangers came out," she said.

— AP writer Beth Harpaz in New York