The Greatest Market in the World

In the United States, the free (as in government is not involved) part of free enterprise has been forgotten. So it is the highest pleasure to travel to places where you can see with your own eyes how commerce is supposed to work.

Here in Istanbul, Turkey, where commerce has been ongoing for centuries, business in (at least) consumer goods seems to be brisk. No trip to the ancient city that has served as the capital to four empires is complete without stopping by the Grand Bazaar. Surely, there would be something lurking within the 4,300 shops to entice the serious consumers in our group.

Five hours later, we walked out with arms full, headed to a rooftop dinner with stunning panoramic views of the Blue Mosque, Bosporus, the Sea of Miramar, and a spectacular setting sun.

But whatever business is being done, it isn’t enough for Güngör Uras, who complains in an article in the Hurriyet Daily News, “Lots of cheap tourists from Arab and Muslim countries are coming to Turkey.” While Mr. Uras says he welcomes these visitors, he sarcastically points out, “We do not do tourism for ‘hobby.’”

Exports and tourism are how Turkey attracts foreign currency and tourists need to quit being so stingy, according to Uras. Exports are expanding at double-digit rates, but tourism revenues are flat.

Mr. Uras crunched the numbers and determined that tourists are spending less than $100 (roughly 180 Turkish lira) per day. And that’s just not enough, according to the columnist, who seems to think tourists are freeloading unless they leave the right amount of their hard-earned money behind.

“This is our problem,” writes Uras, sounding like a government bureaucrat. “The numbers show we let cheap tourists use our cheap resources. We are serving them and letting them wear out our luxury hotels.”

Evidently, these luxury hotels did what they had to do and booked their rooms for whatever rates they could manage, which seems to annoy Uras. “Lots of luxury hotels sold their rooms for cheaper prices to these Arab and Muslim tourists so that they didn’t stay empty.”

Our group is staying at various hotels, and the constant discussion is how amazingly powerful the showers are. This is a sweet diversion from the dribble our U.S. showers provide, unless they have been hacked using the methods of Jeffrey Tucker.

Uras more than implies that the Arab and Muslim visitors are tightwads taking advantage of the Turks. “Cheap tourists do not bring money to us; they are exploiting our resources.”

I can assure Mr. Uras that while we were in town to attend a wedding, we more than carried our weight in the Grand Bazaar, the barbershop, and beyond. I won’t say exactly, so as not to pique the curiosity of U.S. Customs and Border patrol, but due to the extraordinary personality and sales talents of a certain Kurdish leather goods provider, we made up for a number of tightwad tourists with just one stop.

Of course, purse buying is a constant agenda item wherever my wife and I travel, but it did not occur to me to buy leather jackets in the sweltering Istanbul afternoon. But operating in an alley less than five feet wide in the Bazaar, the Turkish leather proprietor “with Kurdish blood running through my veins” coaxed me into his tiny space and quickly cast his sales spell over me.

As always, there was plenty of negotiating, something that never happens in American department stores. And while in U.S. stores checkout always occurs at or near a fancy computerized cash register, there are few cash registers in Grand Bazaar stores.

Credit cards are swiped on hand-held devices, and tendered cash is stuffed in the proprietors’ pockets. If he doesn’t have the correct change, he runs to a nearby shop to buy change from a competitor. I say “he” because all the shop operators are male.

The dynamic Kurd had a small laptop on a corner table as well as a decade-old fax machine. I asked what he used the fax machine for. “I have three secretaries,” he told me. “Every hour, I send them a picture of me, to remind them of whom they work for.”

I was skeptical of the three secretary story at first, but was almost convinced by the time we were done. The sales dynamo did have two young assistants as his beck and call. As he explained that the jacket I tried on was water-proof, suddenly, a glass of water appeared from one assistant while the other slid a mop on the floor to catch the water the merchant poured on and was repelled by the expensive coat: an orchestrated sales shtick better than anything you will see on a late-night infomercial.

I’m sure that after we left with two big purchases, the proprietor told his young charges, “Did you see how I did that? That American didn’t want to buy anything. But once I got him in my shop, I had him!”

Tepid tourist spending is not just an Istanbul problem. The average Las Vegas tourist budgeted $20 less for gambling in 2011 than in 2010. Tourist spending is down in such divergent places as the United Kingdom, Uruguay, Hawaii, and Egypt, as well.

Clearly, the worldwide recession marches on. However, as anyone who flies will attest, people are traveling. Every flight is full. The fact is sales can be had, but merchants must work that much harder to move their goods and services. But governments are lazy and greedy. Columnist Uras seems to think that tourists and consumers owe it to the region or city they visit to empty their pockets and go home.

He should learn something from the merchants in the Grand Bazaar. They don’t take consumer spending for granted. They use every bit of their wit and guile to make a sale — just as their ancestors have done for 550 years.

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