Is It Safe to Visit Istanbul Right Now?

0
9


On January 12, 2018, the U.S. State Department issued a Level 3 travel advisory for Turkey, asking its citizens to “reconsider travel … due to terrorism and arbitrary detentions.” Specifically, it cautioned against traveling in the southeastern provinces along the Turkey-Syria border, and to be vigilant in places with large crowds, such as airports, hotels, restaurants, shopping malls, and clubs.

The Level 3 classification puts Turkey in the company of Sudan and Haiti, and one step below no-go zones like Afghanistan and North Korea. (Iceland, by contrast, is classified as Level 1, where “normal precautions” apply.) The United States isn’t alone in its assessment; the U.K. Foreign & Commonwealth Office has also cited a heightened risk of a terrorist attack in Turkey, listing “Kurdish groups, Daesh (formerly referred to as ISIL), and far left organizations” as potential perpetrators.

Does that mean you shouldn’t go to Turkey right now? Not necessarily.

“The question of safety is sadly one that now affects every major tourism destination, as we’ve seen in Paris, Nice, London, Madrid, Sydney, Berlin, Copenhagen, New York, Boston, and even Fort Lauderdale and Orlando, Florida,” says Ralph Radtke, general manager of the five-star Çırağan Palace Kempinski hotel in Istanbul. It’s important to keep some perspective. “In Turkey, for example, the distance between Istanbul and the farthest regions in its southeast is roughly 900 miles—greater than the distance between London and Rome or New York and Texas,” observes Radtke.

How exactly, then, does the State Department come up with its ratings?

“We look at the totality of circumstances, including such factors as crime, terrorist activity, civil unrest, health and natural disaster, and current events,” explains a State Department official, speaking to Condé Nast Traveler on condition of anonymity. “The primary drivers of the [Level 3] classification are terrorism and arbitrary detention. So while street crime in Turkey is relatively low, that’s separate from terrorism. And what makes terrorism challenging is that terrorist attacks can occur with little or no warning.”

The administration works with government partners to assess credible threat information and determine which types of places are most likely to be targeted by terrorists. “That’s not solely Istanbul-specific,” the official continues. “That’s the kind of target in any place with a heightened terrorist risk.”

Unfortunately, a string of high-profile attacks—including a 2016 suicide bombing in touristy Sultanahmet Square (near the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia) and a mass shooting at ritzy nightclub on New Year’s Day—crippled Turkey’s tourism economy. But the biggest blow, at least for many working in hospitality, was the June 28, 2016 attack at Istanbul Atatürk Airport. Forty-one people died and 230 were injured.

“The attack at the airport and then the coup were the final straw,” says Earl Starkey, an Istanbul-based Turkey travel specialist from Protravel International. “After that we got no bookings at all. Maybe one or two in 2017.”

By January 2017, tourism had fallen 19 percent from the previous year. Hotels slashed room rates in an attempt to increase occupancy. Tour guides went a year or more without work; other were forced to lead outbound tours or focus on the Asian market. Some tour companies, like London-based outfitter Travel the Unknown, suspended trips to Turkey altogether.

But with the passage of time, and international media focusing its attention elsewhere, things have slowly begun to rebound. Locals working in the service sector have suffered for years, says Riza Yenice, one of Starkey’s most trusted Turkish tour guides, but the recovery now is palpable. “There are really long lines getting into museums and mosques and even markets,” says Yenice. “Seeing [the return of] tour groups and individual travelers is really cheering us up and giving [us] hope.”

Intrepid Travel, which offers a dozen small-group itineraries in Turkey, reports that the country is currently its fastest growing in terms of global bookings, with a 368 percent increase over last year. While travelers appear keen to take advantage of the favorable exchange rate, warnings from the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade have pushed Intrepid to rethink some of its itineraries.

“We wouldn’t consider going to a region with a ‘Do Not Travel’ warning. However, Istanbul and Van are categorized at the next level and we do travel there,” says Jen Hartin, Intrepid’s Istanbul-based destination manager for Turkey and the Middle East. “Our team in Turkey have the local knowledge and contacts to avoid any situations. For example, we’re still being cautious and ensuring our leaders avoid taking groups into public events, fairs, and parades while they’re on a trip.”

By Starkey’s estimate, the U.S. State Department’s Level 3 warning may be driven by the fact that Turkey is technically still in a state of emergency since the coup. A snap election has been planned for June 24, around which he would advise travelers to “avoid political rallies or large crowds until the elections are over.” But mostly, he believes the warning has “more to do with politics than any real danger,” noting that Russia also has a Level 3 categorization right now.

Yenice concurs, noting that there are “crazy leaders everywhere.” Turkey is a melting pot, she says, adding that “we have always lived [in] harmony with cultural and religious diversity. Despite these difficult times, it will always continue this way. If we felt unsafe due to the instability, we would have already left. But we didn’t, and we have no regrets.”

With the first phase of the Istanbul New Airport slated to open in late October, Turkey has a golden opportunity to reboot its tourism economy. By the airport’s intended completion in 2020, it is expected to be the largest transit hub in the world, serving 200 million passengers a year. Because the State Department reassesses Level 3 and 4 countries every six months, Turkey will also be up for re-evaluation next month. (Level 1 countries, by contrast, are examined just once a year.)

Ansel Mullins, the Chicago-born founder of food tour company Culinary Backstreets, spent 15 years living and working in Istanbul. He moved to Lisbon a year and a half ago, coincidentally flying out six hours before the attempted coup. But Mullins still visits Istanbul regularly and considers it to be as safe as ever. Like Starkey and Yenice, he pins the Level 3 rating on troubled U.S.-Turkey relations.

“Worrying about being the victim of a terrorist attack feels, to me, like worrying about being struck by lightning,” says Mullins. “Set that aside, and you’ve got what? The threat of an angry mob? As an American citizen, I’ve lived and traveled widely throughout Turkey in times when the country’s reputation was at its worst. From Diyarbakir to Mardin to Mus, I’ve always been mobbed… with hospitality! Honestly, I’ve never felt anything but safe here.”

While Mullins concedes that the current political situation does not make Turkey “as ‘free’ a place (for activists, journalists, academics, free-thinking folks) as it was a few years ago, it is probably more safe. Once you hit the ground, it’s all free tea and the beautiful chaos that makes the city so enchanting. For the visitor, paradise.”

Tip: If you decide to travel to Turkey (or anywhere really), sign up for STEP, the U.S. Department of State’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program. The free service keeps you alerted to country-specific travel advisories and helps the U.S. Embassy contact you in case of an emergency.



Source link

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here