Turkish town that's on a go-slow

While most of the country is enveloped in a building frenzy, one resort has decided to say no to big hotels and yes to carbon-neutral energy.

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ISTANBUL // As many cities and towns along Turkey's western and southern coastlines are starting to count the cost of an unrestricted building frenzy, Seferihisar, a quiet town on the Agean coast, has decided to take a completely different route and become Turkey's first "slow city", saying no to big hotels, introducing carbon-neutral energy sources and encouraging bicycles and horses instead of cars.

"Luckily, Seferihisar is not as developed as other cities," Tunc Soyer, the town's mayor, said in a telephone interview this week. Becoming a member of the international "Cittaslow", or "slow city", movement, "will give me the chance to preserve the land and not have ugly buildings in the city", he said. Seferihisar, a town of 17,000 people near Izmir that relies on agriculture, mostly mandarin groves, and tourism for its income, hopes to become a member of "Cittaslow" within the next six months, the mayor said.

"Cittaslow" is part of the so-called Slow Movement, which grew out of the slow-food trend that started in Italy in the 1980s as a counter-movement to the growing number of fast-food restaurants. "Cittaslow" was founded in 1999 in Italy and wants to improve quality of life in towns through a number of criteria that members have to fulfil, according to a statement on the organisation's website. Only cities with a continuous population of fewer than 50,000 can join. Currently, membership stands at close to 120 towns, with most of them in Italy. Like the slow-food movement, "Cittaslow" has a snail as its logo.

The snail-like approach could not be more different from the frantic pace of activity that has gripped the Turkish coasts in recent years. Hundreds of kilometres of coastline along the Aegean and the Mediterranean have seen a dramatic increase in the number of hotels, summer houses, restaurants, shops as well as highways and streets to connect them. Critics say the developments have ruined much of the beauty of some coastal strips and towns.

With more than 26 million visitors coming to Turkey last year, most of which headed for the beaches in the west and the south, the tourism industry is one of the most important sectors of the country's economy. But the boom in tourism - the number of foreign visitors has more than doubled in the past eight years - has led to an often uncontrolled building frenzy. At the same time, the steady growth of Turkey's economy in the past few years has meant that a rising number of Turks can now afford a summer house on the coast.

This month, the daily Radikal published a series of three photographs, showing the resort town of Bodrum, 150km south of Seferihisar on the Aegean, in 1965, in 2005 and today. The pictures demonstrated a sprawl of buildings that turned the district centre of Bodrum, a popular holiday destination for both foreign and Turkish holidaymakers, into a "sea of concrete", the newspaper said. As a member of "Cittaslow", Seferihisar must stick to criteria that range from traffic rules to the way food is handled in the town's restaurants. Mr Soyer said his town will develop thermal and wind power for its energy supply, while street lighting will be powered by solar energy. As for traffic, "we don't want to see cars in the centre", the mayor said. People should get around on foot, on bicycles or even on horseback, he said. The mayor also wants small boutique hotels instead of five-star high-rise building. Local restaurants in Seferihisar will be encouraged to follow the "slow food" philosophy by stressing sustainability, local cuisine and a back-to-basics philosophy. Mr Soyer said in the case of his town that could mean that a certain kind of leaf that is unique to the area around Seferihisar forms part of the menu.

It is too early to tell whether the plan of the mayor, who was elected only three months ago and came up with the "Cittaslow" idea as a guideline for Seferihisar's development, will work. Mr Soyer was to give a presentation of his plan to the town's people and representatives of the local tourism industry this week. "It seems to me that people are interested," Mr Soyer said. He also thinks that his town's idea will not go unnoticed in other Turkish municipalities that face the tricky question of how to balance development and tourism with the preservation of local flair. "I am sure we will have many followers," Mr Soyer said.