by Burak Akinci
ISPARTA, Turkey, June 20 (Xinhua) -- Turkish farmer Neriman Kollu has been harvesting rose petals for nearly 60 years in Isparta, a southern province known as the "land of roses" during an annual event that welcomes guests from all over the world.
"I have been harvesting roses since I was a 5-year-old little girl, under the rain or the sun and in the mud. In the past, the rose sacks were thicker, and we used to sleep on them," Kollu, now 64, told Xinhua in her rose garden.
"When it's harvest season, we wake up very early and start harvesting at 4 o'clock in the morning until 6 or 7 in the evening to seize the sunlight," the elderly farmer said.
Picking the buds with a pair of hands weathered by thorn scratches, Kollu said while the fragrance is enjoyable, the job is particularly laborious.
Another rose collector, Yildirim Donmez, has been in the business for some 20 years.
"This is a difficult job," Donmez said, adding that during the harvest season, garnering 70 kg of roses a day can earn a collector about 280 liras (16.5 U.S. dollars).
In Isparta, the harvest season falls between May and the end of June.
Rose blossoms in June bring the province into its peak hours of harvest and engulf the namesake city with sweet scents, also the trade hub of the freshly collected buds and home to some of the world's finest perfumes.
According to the local tourism department, the province covers approximately 60 percent of the world's rose oil production, with all kinds of rose-based products exported all over the world. The flower is a major source of income for thousands of families in the region along with smaller amounts of lavender.
Rose oil, said to have anti-aging effects, has seen surging demand from international luxury brands, particularly in France, and key markets like China.
Local authorities and industry representatives said they are looking into investing in the Chinese market where consumers have shown booming interest in "the flower of love."
"The Chinese market is most interesting because there is a lot of interest. Rose water has also a place in Chinese culture and people are aware of its natural effects. We would progressively reach the Chinese market," said Alpaslan Yildizhan, commercial director of cosmetic brand Rosense.
He explained that the variety of rose cultivated since the late 19th century in Isparta is the Damascene Rose, which is the only species used to produce rose oil, and an established "trademark" of the province.
This pink flower has a strong scent and is also used in medicine besides cosmetics.
For some time, Isparta has been betting on rose tourism, attracting domestic and foreign visitors for the harvest season and the Rose Festival that precedes it.
Tourists would be driven to the field to try their own harvest and then explore how the rose is processed, even bringing home the rose oil and water that they personally made, Fahretdin Gozgun, vice mayor of Isparta, told Xinhua.
"We are very much involved in a process to develop the touristic aspect of the rose industry in our city. In the past years, many tourist groups from the Far East have come here," Gozgun said.
The official said his province has made a successful publicity campaign in China. "The (COVID-19) pandemic has disrupted tours from China to Isparta. But now that the pandemic is coming to an end we expect a return of Chinese tourists," he added.
Although flower harvesting and oil extraction techniques have advanced with technology, Isparta's rose harvest has not changed much since the 19th century.
There are some 30 factories and distilleries spread across the town and most of their produce is sent to foreign countries to be used in cosmetics.
But there are also some edible kinds of aromatic rose petals and water for foodies to make jams and the Turkish delight, lokoum.
"In Isparta, the economy revolves around the rose as nearly every household is involved," local businessman Yildizhan said.