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Turkey hopes sunken wartime wrecks can refloat tourism sector

'Each of these wrecks has a story' – and there are hopes wealthy visitors will want to hear them

A diver overlooks a heavy shell lying amid the wreck of the British battleship HMS Majestic   Directorate of the Gallipoli Historic Site
A diver overlooks a heavy shell lying amid the wreck of the British battleship HMS Majestic

Looming out of the shadows, unseen but by a few, is the flagship of Turkey’s latest high-end tourism initiative, seeking to parlay past battles into future revenue. 

Lying in 18 metres of water off Turkey’s Gallipoli Peninsula, the sunken battleship HMS Majestic is the cornerstone of a new policy to attract foreign and domestic dive tourists seeking to mix adventure with history. 

Although Turkey posted record high tourist arrival numbers last year, earnings per visitor have not grown apace. 

While overall arrival numbers surged 17 percent in 2023, topping 57 million overseas visitors and generating a record $54.3 billion, per capita earnings only rose by 5.2 percent over 2022 figures to $952, according to state statistics agency Turkstat. 



To boost revenue, Turkey’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism has been working on broadening and improving the country’s product range, seeking to attract higher spending tourists with niche offerings. 

Over the past decade there has been strong growth in the golf tourism segment, with more than 20 courses now in use, most located in the south of the country, Turkey’s holiday resort hub. 

In the east of the country, winter sports have been encouraged, and Turkey is now able to boast some of the longest ski runs in Europe. 

Now, another initiative has been launched in the waters surrounding Turkey’s Gallipoli Peninsula, washed by the Dardanelles Strait and the Aegean Sea. 

In 1915, the peninsula and the waters around it were the scene of bloody land and sea battles between the Ottoman Empire and forces led by the British and French seeking to push their way through the Dardanelles to Istanbul and knock Turkey – an ally of Germany – out of the war. 

Cemeteries and memorials to the fallen from the battles of World War I dot the peninsula and are visited by more than 2 million Turkish and foreign pilgrims a year, most on day trips. 

Almost unvisited, however, are the dozens of vessels lost during the year-long campaign. This is changing as sites in what is now the Gallipoli Historic Underwater Park are surveyed and opened for divers.

The underwater park surrounding the peninsula and the battlefields are managed by the Çanakkale Savaşları Gelibolu Tarhı Alan Baskanlığı (the Directorate of the Gallipoli Historic Site), which comes under Turkey’s tourism ministry.

The wreck of a barge, sunk by Turkish gunfire, lying along side a pier built by British engineers  Directorate of the Gallipoli Historic Site
The wreck of a barge, sunk by Turkish gunfire, lying alongside a pier built by British engineers

Turkey is broadening its range of tourism offerings, according to İsmail Kaşdemir, head of the directorate. It is not just about the staples of budget tourism – sea, sun, sand – he told AGBI, but promoting top end tourist attractions.

“We know that those who take part in dive tourism are from high-income groups,” he said. “And when they travel, they do not stay just for one day but spend more time.” 

Turkey’s Gallipoli underwater park has 21 diving points, with wartime wrecks at depths of between four and 70 metres, providing challenges to divers of all skill levels.  

2,000,000

visitors to World War I memorials every year

The largest of the wrecks off the Gallipoli coast is the Majestic, a 16,000-tonne British battleship sunk by a German submarine in May 1915, while among the smallest are barges of only a few tonnes used to bring troops ashore.

This site is unique, the largest collection of wrecks from World War I open to diving, said Kaşdemir.

“Each of these wrecks has a story,” he said. “And people are curious about stories. So, you are not diving on an artificially created site but diving into historical reality, a true story, and I believe people will come for these stories.”

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