ISTANBUL — Driven by a craze for Turkish soap opera, Arab tourists are flocking to Istanbul, with the city's world-famous Ottoman mosques and palaces only a side show to their real destinations: the filming venues.
Featuring heart-throb heroes, emancipated heroines and picturesque scenery, Turkish television series have become a pop-culture phenomenon in the Arab world, sending thousands to Istanbul to retrace the steps of favourite stars.
Cem Polatoglu cannot believe it. Within only a year, his travel agency Baracuda, which specialises in the Arab market, has doubled its clientele.
"Previously, Arab tourists were interested in mosques and thermal baths," he says. "No one is interested in thermal cure any more... They all want to visit the mansions where the series are shot and dine in restaurants they've seen on TV."
About a dozen travel agencies, he says, have now included venues featured in the soap operas into sightseeing programmes tailored specially for the Arab visitor.
The hype began in early 2008 with the "Noor" series -- aired on the Saudi MBC satellite channel -- which captivated audiences across the Middle East and earned its blond, blue-eyed lead actor a super-star status he can hardly dream of at home.
Cruising along the shores of the Bosphorus, a group of Arab tourists show modest interest when they pass off the sprawling Ottoman palaces of Dolmabahce and Beylerbeyi.
But once the guide announces the seafront villa where the Noor series were shot, commotion jolts the boat, excited exclamations explode and cameras start clicking feverishly.
For those prepared to pay 60 Turkish lira (40 dollars, 28 euros), the posh building is open to tour and explore, with the owner enjoying a far profitable business than renting the mansion to wealthy tenants.
"All in Jordan watch Noor and Mohannad, just everybody," exclaims Bacher Al Madjali, a Jordanian tourist in his 50s, referring to the main characters of the series, who were given Arab names to suit the Middle East audience.
"When I said I was going to Istanbul, people told me to go and see Madame Noor and Mister Mohannad and tell them to come to Jordan", he says.
Fadih Ferrah, a Palestinian based in Kuwait, explains how the soap opera awoke his interest in Turkey.
"Relatives were already telling me to visit the country, but it was the images I saw in the series that gave me an idea of what Istanbul is," he says.
Statistics demonstrate an impressive trend: while the overall number of foreign tourists fell by one percent in the first half of 2009 amid global economic woes, the number of Arabs rose, ranging from a 21-percent increase for visits from the United Arab Emirates to 51 percent from Morocco.
Still, Arabs remain a small group in Turkey's flourishing tourism sector, numbering 500,000 people, or some five percent of the total in the same period.
Tour operators however hope the market will continue to grow as Arabs get to discover Turkey.
Ayman Maslamani, the Arab manager of the Istanbul-based Heysem travel agency, believes the current influx owes more to the charming Istanbul scenery shown in the soap operas rather than their melodramatic plots.
"Previously, Arabs did not know much about Turkey. They imagined a backward, filthy country, less developed than richer Arab states," he explains.
"When they saw the images of the Bosphorus on TV, they were gripped by a desire to come. This is a genuine boom."
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