Bursa, the old Turkish town with new vitality

The old Ottoman capital takes on Istanbul as an industrial hub, matching its football team's accomplishments on the pitch.

An employee at the German based firm MichelFelder factory in Bursa assembling exhaust systems for Renault cars.

Credit: Kerem Uzel for The National
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BURSA, TURKEY // When Funda Surer moved from Istanbul, Turkey's vibrant metropolis and cultural centre, to the provincial industrial city of Bursa 15 years ago, her friends could barely hide their disdain. But in recent years, that attitude has changed. "It is much easier to get a good job here than in Istanbul, especially if you are an engineer." Quality of life is also better, said Ms Surer, a marketing manager for a German company. "We are only about half an hour both from the mountains and the sea."

Bursa, a former Ottoman capital surrounded by olive groves and nestled in the green foothills of the Uludag mountain range close to the southern shore of the Sea of Marmara, has a long history as an industrial city. But now, strengthened by its share in Turkey's rise as an economic power in recent years, the city of 1.9 million people has started to step out of the shadow of its giant neighbour, Istanbul, home to at least 12 million people and Turkey's economic centre.

When Michael Hormann's company, Michelfelder, a mid-sized German firm that produces metal tubes for car exhaust pipes, decided to open its first branch abroad two years ago, it settled on Bursa, about 100km south of Istanbul. The choice paid off. "We have seen our turnover rise 100 per cent in a year," Mr Hormann, a cheerful 48-year-old from southern Germany, said during an interview in his office in an industrial park on the outskirts of Bursa last week. Over the same period he has seen the city around him change rapidly. "The scale of construction that is going on here is gigantic," he said.

Bursa has joined several other Anatolian cities that challenge Istanbul's dominance with their own increasing economic power and a growing self-confidence. "There definitely has been an explosion in Bursa," Sahabettin Harput, the governor of Bursa province, said in an interview in his plush office in the historic city centre, referring to the city's growing importance. "Bursa is its own trademark." Not long ago, people said "Anatolia cannot do this or cannot do that", the governor said. "Those days are over."

Hundreds of foreign companies have settled in Bursa's industrial zones, which have become centres of Turkey's automotive and textile industries. Almost two-thirds of the roughly 800,000 vehicles that Turkey is expected to export to foreign markets this year are assembled in Bursa, Mr Harput said. Thousands of people work in giant car factories that produce vehicles for global companies like Renault and Fiat to be sold on the growing Turkish market or to be shipped to Europe.

Last year, Renault announced that it will start mass production of a high-tech electric car, the Fluence, in Bursa, starting in 2011. Renault declined a request for a visit to the planned production site, citing a need to keep the technology confidential. "From Bursa to the world arena", read a giant banner on the Renault factory outside the city. Turkish officials hailed Renault's move as a big honour and a watershed for Turkey, a country that has long been viewed as poor and backward in the West. "Renault made the decision despite Sarkozy," joked one official, referring to the French president, who is Europe's most prominent opponent to Turkey's bid to become a member of the EU.

Equally important for Bursa's self-esteem was another event this year. Bursaspor, the local football club, dethroned the much bigger and richer football clubs in Istanbul by becoming the first national football champion from outside Istanbul in decades, a fact that has boosted the pride of people in Bursa immensely. Now the city will host world-renowned teams such as Manchester United in the Champions' League.

"The championship has definitely helped to put Bursa on the map," said Turker Erturk, the director of the BTSO Organised Industrial Estate, Bursa's and Turkey's oldest industrial park. Mr Harput, the governor, agreed. "Bursa plays in the big league now," he said. "And that is not only true for football." The rise of Bursa and other Anatolian cities was "healthy" for Turkey, he said. Now he wants to take the city further by turning it into a centre of culture and wellness tourism. Bursa has already become a favourite destination for many visitors from Arab countries with its mixture of Ottoman history, a cool climate and thermal baths.

The governor has toured international tourism fairs, including one in Dubai, and several hotel projects underway in the city will add 3,000 beds to Bursa's tourism sector. "Tourism will be our new engine of growth," the governor said. He wants to boost job training for potential employees in the tourism sector and at the same time slow the growth of industries that have a potential to harm the environment.

The governor does not want to see additional smokestack factories in his province. "It's enough now," he said. "We want high-tech companies, like firms dealing with nano-technology."