ISTANBUL // This is a country on the move, and Bilge Calikli Arpaci is betting US$150 million (Dh551m) that it will stay that way. Ms Arpaci is overseeing Autopia, a giant car shopping mall project in Beylikduzu, a middle-class suburb on the European side of Istanbul. When it opens at the end of next year, Autopia, with more than 500 shops on 117,000 sq m, will house dealerships for new and used cars, banks, insurance companies, repair shops, 55 cafes and restaurants and even an 800-metre test track on the roof of the three-storey building.
"There is nothing like this anywhere in the world," Ms Arpaci, Autopia's general director, said in her sales office next to the mall's construction site this month. The idea is to offer potential car buyers everything under one roof - from a wide choice of vehicles to financing and accessories and a test drive. About 30 per cent of the shops have already been sold. "We are expecting six million visitors every year," Ms Arpaci said. That figure would equal a bit more than eight per cent of Turkey's general population of 72 million.
Autopia is partly designed to offer a central home for used car dealerships that have been banned from inner-city areas by a new law. The mall will also sell bicycles and motor yachts, but cars will be the main attraction. Growing car ownership has become a symbol of Turkey's economic boom that started after a severe financial crisis almost 10 years ago. Since then, strong growth has propelled Turkey into the ranks of the G20 group, the world's 20 biggest economies. Were Turkey an EU member today, it would have the sixth-largest economy in the bloc. The country roared out of the latest global financial crisis with a growth rate of 11.7 per cent in the first quarter of this year.
Long looked down upon as a poor country by many in the West, Turkey has attracted billions of dollars in foreign investment and has become a regional centre for many international companies. Turkey's new-found economic strength is one of the key factors behind the country's increasingly assertive role on the international political stage. At home, growing incomes have fuelled an increasing demand for consumer goods. The sale of refrigerators, washing machines and other appliances has grown by 14 per cent in the first five months of the year, according to industry figures.
"A new kind of wealth has been created in the last 10 years," Ms Arpaci said. "We are a young society," she added in reference to recently released statistics showing that every second Turk is younger than 29 years old. "If the per capita income continues to rise, there is a huge potential." Three out of four households in Turkey still do not have a car, according to the Investment Support and Promotion Agency of Turkey, a government body in Ankara.
But that may change. Ten years ago, there were 8.3 million vehicles on Turkey's roads. Today, the number has almost doubled to 14.5 million, according to the latest figures of the Turkish Statistical Institute. In the first four months of this year alone, traffic volume increased by 226,000 newly registered vehicles, up 21.7 per cent from the number of new cars in the same period last year. Autopia, which is being built by two construction companies that also run several conventional shopping malls in Istanbul, has started to attract interest from abroad, Ms Arpaci said. Would-be investors from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, as well as from several European countries, have looked at the project and are mulling similar ventures in their own countries.
But Autopia is not the only car mall in Istanbul. Another shopping centre for vehicles, Automall, opened this week, but it sells only used cars. A third car mall, Otoport, down the road from Autopia, is also scheduled to open next year. Ms Arpaci said there were plans to build several more vehicle malls in Istanbul, Bursa, Izmir and Ankara. Observers say this may be only the start of a wider trend. Around half a million new cars and two million used cars are sold in Turkey every year, Ahmet Celik, a columnist with the Haberturk newspaper, wrote recently. "Judging from these figures, we can expect to get many more car malls."
The boom is putting Turkey's transport grid under growing pressure. More than 11,000km of roads have been built in the past seven years, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, has said. Authorities in Istanbul, home to 12 million people and every third car in Turkey, are planning to build a third highway bridge across the Bosphorus to ease traffic congestion. But for all the problems, the idea of owning a car remains a dream for many Turks. Veysel, a teenager selling cigarettes and lighters on a pedestrian bridge across a busy road close to the Autopia construction site, said: "If I had the money, I would buy one. But with this job, that will not be possible."