Normally around this time of the year, as the summer begins to heat up, Turkey is filling with tourists from the European Union, Asia, North America, and other origins around the world. The beaches in the Turkish Riviera towns of Bodrum, Antalya, and Çeşme are becoming crowded with sunbathers and swimmers; more adventurous travelers venture to the stunning natural wonders in Cappadocia and Pamukkale; and those who love history cannot leave without taking in Ephesus, Gallipoli, and most importantly, Istanbul.
However, in recent weeks Istanbul has become less redolent of Byzantine basilicas and Ottoman palaces and more associated with the Gezi Park protests that have lately burst onto the global news scene.
Normally, this area would be filled with sightseers from the far reaches of the globe, eager to comb the shops of Istiklal Avenue, eat at the posh cafes in Beyoğlu, and walk the spacious promenades along Taksim Square. But this spring, plans to replace Gezi Park, a public park adjacent to Taksim Square, with a shopping mall drew a public outcry first from a group of environmentalists, and then, when Turkish National Police used tear gas and bulldozers against the peaceful sit-in, from other residents of the city of Istanbul.
Now the protests have been continuing for two weeks, with 640,000 participants across Turkey, not only in Istanbul, but also in the capital, Ankara, along with other major cities like Bursa, Izmir, Adana, and Gaziantep. With this kind of major national impact, as well as the extensive press coverage given to the Gezi Park protests in foreign countries, many are worried that Turkey’s typical summer tourism boom will be more of a bust in 2013.
People are still flying into the international airports in Istanbul and Ankara, but David Segal, managing director of West End Travel, says, “People are definitely nervous.”
Turkey’s popularity among international tourists has been increasing in recent years, with a 300 percent increase in foreign tourists from 1998 to 2011, and Istanbul in particular earns the nation $10.6 billion in revenue from tourism.
This popularity has led many tourists to book nonrefundable flights and packages, which some are likely using regardless of the political situation, in order to avoid suffering a financial loss. It is likely that this partially accounts for the fact that the Turkish tourism industry has thus far not suffered collapse.
Although it is not yet capitulating to the protestors, the Turkish government is trying to contain the protest and do damage control for Turkey’s international image, including to tourists. The Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism has released a statement saying, “There are currently no problems being experienced with either transport or security in Istanbul or any of our tourism regions, and thus every sort of touristic activity is carrying on as normal.”
It is true that many of the smaller tourist towns along the Turkish Riviera on the Aegean and Mediterranean seas have, in fact, been thus far sheltered from the protests. However, it is undeniable that the political instability of the city of Istanbul is affecting the tourism sector. On Saturday, the Turkish National Police fired tear gas into the lobby of the luxury Divan Hotel in the posh district of Şişli.
For these reasons, Segal and others like him are not counting on Turkey bringing in anything like its recent tourism revenues this summer. “Europe’s a big place,” he says. “I’d give Turkey a miss.” How much of a miss remains to be seen in the coming months.
By Laura Gates
Source: CNN, Human Rights Foundation of Turkey, Sydney Morning Herald