Istanbul is becoming a regional powerhouse for trade and for tourism. It's now the 5th most visited city in the world – getting more visitors than New York. And the Turkish economy is racking up over 3% annual growth, whilst much of Europe is still in the doldrums.
Each month our resident business travel expert Mark Frary writes the Heathrow Express travel guide to a major city. This month: Istanbul
Business travel buzz
Istanbul sits in both Europe and Asia, divided by the Bosphorus Strait, and its location means that it was and remains a strategically important trade centre. The number of large ships moored offshore in the Sea of Marmara is evidence of its continuing trading strength.
The International Monetary Fund projects Turkey’s economy to grow by 3.1% in 2015 and by 3.6% in 2016 in real terms, among the fastest growing in Europe. The economy has been boosted by lower energy prices, although inflation in the country remains high. The population is young and growing fast.
Istanbul, although not Turkey’s political capital, is the country’s largest city – with a population of 14.4 million – and is the most important city for the economy, culture and business. The city’s Levent and Maslak districts are home to many of the bank headquarters although a new multi-billion dollar financial district is being built on the Asian side of the Bosphorus in Ataşehir.
Tourism is a vital part of the economy and fast-growing. Istanbul is now the fifth most visited city in the world, beating even New York, with more than 12.5 million overnight visitors expected to come to this exotic city this year.
As well as leisure, business tourism is thriving. The city is in the top ten conference destinations in the world. In October, the city hosts a clutch of conferences for the International Society for Engineers and researchers while November sees it welcome the digital economy event DIGIT.EMEA.
Both British Airways and Turkish Airlines fly from Heathrow to Istanbul’s Ataturk airport. Turkish – one of the fastest growing airlines in Europe and with a huge onward network - has up to five direct services a day from terminal 2 while BA has three flights a day from terminal 5. The journey takes around three and a quarter hours.
The airport is 20km from the central areas of Istanbul. Getting around can be a challenge. Taxis are cheap but the traffic can be horrendous at rush hour when the 30 minute journey from the airport can easily become a two-hour one. Taxi fares are based on distance travelled, though, and the cost to go from the airport to the centre, is around 50 to 60 lira (£12-£15).
There is a modern and fast-growing metro system with seven lines that serves the airport. Havatas operates a reliable bus service every half hour from the airport to Taksim in the centre, which takes around 40 minutes when traffic flows freely and costs 11 lira (£2.75).
If you are doing business near the old city, there are plenty of places to pop for a quick dose of Turkish culture. The Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia museum are well worth a visit to marvel at their jaw-dropping scale and interiors. Another place for a quick visit between meetings is the Basilica Cistern, a series of cool, underground catacombs that provide welcome relief from the heat of the city.
The rivalry between Istanbul’s two most successful football clubs, Fenerbahçe and Galatasaray, is long-standing and intense, partly due to their stadia sitting on opposite sides of the Bosphorus. Getting tickets is challenging, particularly for the so-called Intercontinental derby between the teams. You will need to apply for a prepaid Passolig card in advance, load e-tickets onto the card and then take your passport as ID when collecting it from one of various kiosks in Istanbul.
Istanbul’s Biennial art festival, covering film, theatre, jazz and design, is one of the world’s most highly regarded and returns to the city between September and November. The Biennial has the theme of saltwater for 2015 and events take place on boats, in gardens, former banks and private homes.
The black book
The average business hotel rate in the city in 2014 was £137.61, according to travel management company HRG. This was almost 15% down on the previous year but this was due to the strength of the pound against the Turkish lira.
Istanbul’s Ataköy district – between the airport and the old city - is undergoing significant coastal development, including the huge Sea Pearl luxury apartment and hotel complex, part funded by Qatari Diar. Also on this strip is the new Hyatt Regency Istanbul Ataköy. In a building inspired by the sleek lines of an ocean liner with views over the Sea of Marmara, you will find excellent service and contemporary rooms clustered around a vertiginous atrium. The hotel has a classy rooftop bar called VUE with great cocktails and regular DJ sessions. Rooms are from around £100 a night.
If you have a lower budget, try one of the city’s Tempo Hotels, which are modern, clean and great value. The Levent property has helpful staff and is well placed for a business trip.
SALT Galata, in the former Ottoman Bank building in Karaköy, is a gallery, library and cafe and a greta place to get some free wi-fi to catch up on your email.
Turkey and social media have a love-hate relationship but if you want to know Istanbul, check out these influencers in the city:
Hurriyet Daily News is the English version of Turkey’s leading liberal, secular newspaper. Follow it on Twitter @hdner to keep up with international and local news
Writer, jazz singer Sezgi Olgaç captures Istanbul’s colour, bustle and beauty with a keen eye on her Instagram feed @sezgiolgac
Leigh Turner, @LeighTurnerFCO is Britain’s Consul General in the city and tweets about local life, travel and links to his blog
The Economist’s Turkey correspondent Amberin Zaman is worth following @amberinzaman for hard-hitting insight into working in the region
The Guide Istanbul magazine has kept visitors and locals informed for the past two decades on what’s hot and not in the city. Keep up with the latest things to do @tgistanbul
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