By Orhan Coskun and Tulay Karadeniz
ANKARA (Reuters) - President Tayyip Erdogan heads to Latin America on Sunday with the aim of boosting trade ties as Turkey seeks to diversify away from its traditional export markets in the troubled economies of Europe and the Middle East.
In his first visit to the region in a year, Erdogan will lead a large business delegation to Chile, Peru and Ecuador.
Turkey has been slowly strengthening its relationship with Latin America since the late 1990s, when one of his predecessors, Suleyman Demirel, became the first Turkish president to make an official visit.
The search for new markets has become more important as conflict ravages neighboring Iraq and Syria, long two of its major trading partners. A diplomatic row with Moscow, which slapped economic sanctions on Turkey after Ankara downed a Russian warplane last year, has exacerbated its woes.
"The fundamental idea behind Erdogan's visit to Latin America is Turkey's push to search for new markets and diversify," said an official from the economy ministry who is helping to prepare for the visit.
"Turkey does a great deal of business with its neighbors but is experiencing difficulties because of rising problems in the Middle East."
Turkey's latest trade data released on Friday showed exports dropped 11 percent in December, suggesting those tensions were taking their toll.
Latin America will not plug the gap any time soon, but it is one of relatively few major emerging market regions which Turkish businesses - actively pushing into new markets in the Middle East, Africa and Central Asia in recent years - have by and large failed to tap.
Trade with Latin America was nearly $10 billion in 2014, according to official figures, up from around $1 billion in 2000, but still just a sliver of Turkey's overall commerce.
Central, South America and the Caribbean accounted for just 1.8 percent of Turkish exports in 2014, according to government data. The top Latin American destination for Turkish exports that year was Mexico, although it ranked 45th overall, behind the likes of Malta and Yemen.
Peru was the next biggest destination, in 78th place.
NEW TURKEY, NEW MARKETS
Erdogan, prime minister for more than a decade before winning the first direct election for head of state in 2014, has championed a vision of a "New Turkey" with a bigger diplomatic and trade presence on the world stage.
Turkish companies - in sectors ranging from food to construction - have built a reputation for being at the forefront of investment in challenging markets from Libya and Yemen to Somalia and Kazakhstan.
Major Turkish exports to South America include iron and steel, machinery, autos and vegetable and animal oils. Turkey has also made some inroads with cultural exports, with some of its daytime soap operas becoming hits in Chile.
But its exports still tend to be lower down the value chain than those of some Asian rivals.
"Turkey doesn't have many high-tech exports. This creates a restriction in how much it can expand its markets, but there may be opportunities," Mehmet Yegin of the Ankara-based USAK think tank said of the Latin America trip.
"There will absolutely be expansion for the Turkish market. But I don't expect really big, ground-breaking expansion."
(Additional reporting by Nick Tattersall in Istanbul; Writing by David Dolan; editing by Anna Willard)