There’s no doubt about it, Turkey is home to some of the most stunning landscapes, beaches, museums and architecture out there. The ancient city of Constantinople, the old capital of Byzantium, bridging the East and the West, is a world class city by any standard. But after almost two years of turmoil, just how safe is it to visit the country?
In that time, Turkey has been hit hard by a series of terrorist attacks and bombings, with political instability reaching its height in mid-July 2016, when a coup against President Erdoğan failed.
Last December, I had my own little taste of this instability. Kurdistan militants had driven a car bomb at riot police outside one of Istanbul’s main stadiums. A few seconds later a suicide bomber blew himself up outside a nearby park. The explosions killed almost 50 people (mainly police officers) and injured more than 150. I’d been walking around the general area several minutes before. I was never at any real risk – but I was badly shaken. The other tourists in my hotel stayed up in the lobby for several hours staring at the flashing lights on Turkish news. Most of them were worried Americans who cleared out the next day.
Last year there were numerous reports in the press about the decline of tourism in Turkey – and this was borne out on the ground. ‘It’s a disaster,’ Volkan, one of the hotel’s staff told me. A few years before he had taken out a loan to start his own hostel. Business was booming but then the unrest started and the tourists just stopped coming. Volkan lost everything: ‘I don’t think that [Turkish] tourism will ever go back to its golden days. In the eyes of westerners, Turkey is no longer seen as a safe, secular state.’
The country has been in a state of emergency since the attempted coup and security has clamped down with terrifying force on Erdoğan’s political opponents and anyone who’s seen as a potential threat. Today, Turkey remains in a heightened state of alert and according to the Foreign Office (FCO), the chances of a terrorist attack are still ‘very likely’.
However, it’s important not to get carried away or frightened. Over the last few years, terrorism and political violence has become a sickening reality that people have had to get to grips with in many European cities. Paris, Brussels, Nice, London, Manchester, Stockholm, Berlin – the list goes on. Certainly, Turkey is at the top of that scale, but large sections of the country remain safe for tourists, and this week an upturn in fortunes for the tourism industry has been reported.
According to the FCO, ‘British nationals still made over 1.7 million visits to Turkey in 2016’. Most of these trips were ‘trouble free’, but the FCO also warns against all travel to within 10km of the border with Syria and to the city of Diyarbakir and also advises against all but essential travel to the remaining areas of Sirnak, Mardin, Sanliurfa, Gaziantep, Kilis and Hatay provinces and the provinces of Siirt, Tunceli and Hakkari.
The FCO advises that tourists should ‘be alert’ and ‘remain vigilant in crowded places popular with foreign nationals’. Travellers should carry their e-Visa and passport with them at all times and comply fully with any official checks. And, of course, tourists would do well to avoid large crowds or political demonstrations.
When asked about visiting Istanbul, Time magazine’s Middle East editor Jared Malsin tells me, ‘[The unrest] has changed the character of the city a little bit. It is on people’s minds, I think. You do notice that certain areas have become a bit quieter, you hear about people becoming a little more hesitant to go to certain public places.’
He adds: ‘That said this is an enormous city on 17 million people and it’s also enormously resilient… I’m not a security expert but personally, I do advise my friends and family to come to Istanbul because it’s an amazing city. It’s one of the world’s great cities and it’s an extraordinary place to visit.’