Negotiating Bodrom castle’s steep, slippery pathways and tiny rooms would, amid the crush of tourists, ordinarily be a nightmare. Not this year: foreign tourists have almost vanished, and with its beaches and historic sites empty, Bodrum is showing off its true self.
Take the local farmers’ market. It is stacked with fine spices and the freshest fruit and vegetables. Even better, there’s not a selfie stick in sight. Simply observe and follow the local clientele to find the best pomegranate molasses or crushed red pepper flakes, as I took particular pleasure in doing. Bodrum this summer is belying its package-holiday-mecca status and, more so, Turkey’s reputation as a ground zero for terrorist attacks.
The killing of 39 revellers at an Istanbul nightclub on New Year’s Eve signified a low ebb for Turkey’s reputation abroad. Twenty-seven of the dead were from the Middle East, Canada, India and Russia. Months before, in June 2016, Isis jihadists targeted international visitors at Istanbul’s Ataturk airport, and at the historic Sultanahmet square, in January 2016.
A botched military coup against the ruling AK Party last July did little to quell security concerns, and family members of US diplomatic staff in Istanbul were given an evacuation order last year because of the security threat.
But in Bodrum and other holiday destinations, those incidents are now a distant memory. Even in Istanbul, targeted multiple times last year by Kurdish and jihadist militants, there is a sense that though international visitors are fewer on the ground, security prevails and life has returned to normal. Which begs a question: is it safe to go back to Turkey?
In the six months since the Reina nightclub attack, Turkey has largely stayed out of the headlines. Dozens of Isis cells have been dismantled and the city-focused bombing campaign by Kurdish separatists has ceased. The aforementioned US diplomatic evacuation order was lifted in late March while the Department of Foreign Affairs travel advice puts Turkey on par with France, Belgium and Thailand. The Reina nightclub is now a contorted heap of rubble, levelled by a construction crew in May and consigned to a dark chapter of violence that locals hope has passed.
Hotels in Istanbul, the fifth most-visited city in the world as recently as 2015, recorded a 30 per cent jump in bookings for the first quarter of 2017; countrywide, the figure rose 18 per cent. The number of Russian tourists who visited Turkey in May rose a staggering 1,380 per cent compared to the same month last year, in large part due to the end of a political stand-off between Ankara and Moscow.
Travel agent Thomas Cook reports that Turkey is the third most-popular destination for British tourists this year behind Spain and Greece. “Good value hotels mean Turkey has seen a bounce back in popularity,” it says, citing Turkey’s quality, modern hotel stock as a standout facet.
Cihan Güleç of the Esat Hotel in Kusadasi, a resort town on Turkey’s Aegean coast popular with Irish visitors, hopes this news translates into heads on pillows.
“Although we had a contract with an Irish agency [Sunway] for 2016, it was cancelled because of the problems that happened in early 2016 – the Istanbul airport attacks, etc. But this year we have already started to welcome Irish guests,” he says.
Aer Lingus operates direct flights twice a week between Dublin and Izmir, the nearest airport to Kusadasi. It said it could not disclose traffic figures “as this is commercially sensitive information” but added that, “The route is performing well and runs until November 4th, 2017.”
Mr Güleç relays a similar message. “We started to operate in the first week of May and so far it is going quite good. The percentage of occupancy is about 65 per cent . . . Sunway has booked 38 rooms from us for the 2017 season and we expect Sunway to fill all reserved rooms in the coming weeks.”
Sunway’s Tania Airey says the number of visitors it is sending to Kusadasi is up by 85 per cent this year. “This is due to the amazing great value holidays that are available . . . We have flown over 4,000 passengers to Izmir this summer,” she says.
Five hundred kilometres north of Kusadasi in Istanbul, the violence that marred life in the city in recent years has, for now, dissipated. At the time of the Reina nightclub attack, co-owner Mehmet Kocarslan said that foreign visitors made up 70 per cent of the club’s clientele. Neither he nor his office responded to calls and emails from The Irish Times asking if he thought the demolishing of the club would help close the book on Istanbul’s recent brush with terrorism.
And yet the threat of political instability remains at a higher level now than for more than a decade. Events in Turkey can escalate quickly – no one saw last year’s coup attempt coming, nor the far-reaching purge it has since wrought.
The decades-old Kurdish conflict was deemed to have ended in 2013 when peace talks saw thousands of separatists leave Turkey en masse, but violence bubbled up two years later in large part because of Isis attacks on Kurdish civilians. While it rarely makes international headlines, Kurdish militants continue to assassinate soldiers in the southeast almost on a daily basis.
Though attacks have not occurred in the area, a heavy presence of armed soldiers in and around the Mugla-Bodrum airport is visible, and a permanent checkpoint guards entry to Bodrum town.
A state of emergency enacted because of the abortive coup remains in place in Turkey, and the Department of Foreign Affairs has not altered its travel advice to suggest an improved security climate. “The terrorist threat in Turkey is multifaceted and unpredictable, with several terrorist groups currently targeting the country,” its website warns.
Those most dependent on foreign visitors, however, would disagree.
“Nowhere is safe in today’s world. Attacks can happen in every country,” says hotelier Cihan Güleç. “We in Turkey have worked a lot for better security, and so far we are okay.”
Stephen Starr is author of Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising