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Once Upon a Time in Turkey

2017 May 8
Istanbul, Turkey

Snow covered Istanbul.

They say in life, timing is everything. Travel is no exception.

Yearly seasons determine where summer birds flock for somewhere warm and snow lovers somewhere cold. Annual events like Mardi Gras and Carnival draw people from all over the world. Places that are great for solo travel may be tough with a family and hikes that someone could’ve tackled in their youth may be impossible in their 50’s.

Timing also affects entire countries. Those that are rapidly developing may completely transform in 5-10 years while unexpected events in geopolitics may change things even faster.

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It’s been a little over two years since I returned from Turkey. I’ll admit that the country was never high up on my list. My friend invited me to his wedding in Pakistan and Istanbul provided an easy routing choice through Dubai and then onto Karachi. So why not make a trip out if it?

In the planning stages of the trip, one of the main concerns was ISIS. This was mid-2015 and ISIS had emerged as a legitimate threat. With Syria bordering Turkey, concerns around a terrorist attack were real. As the year wore on, I had hopes that the UN military campaign would defeat ISIS and bring relative peace to the region. Things seemed to be working as ISIS occupied territory shrank everyday. In addition, the heavily touristed areas of Turkey were hundreds of miles away from the Syrian border. Airplane tickets already booked, I decided not to cancel and go on with the trip.

– – –

Speaking of timing, winter in Turkey is definitely not the best time to go. But when life gives you lemons, you make lemonade.

Istanbul had beautiful weather for a couple days before a large snowstorm hit. Hundreds, if not thousands, of flights were cancelled around the country. I experienced the coldest weather in my life in Cappadocia and Antalya, usually the sunny warm jewel on the coast, was empty, rainy, and dreary.

Istanbul, Turkey

Vendor selling roasted nuts near the Hagia Sophia.

While this trip was not the usual warm tropical vacation of yore, it did have its moments. Seeing the snow covered mosques in Istanbul and the powder topped rock formations in Cappadocia provided a striking contrast between the power of man and the beauty of nature. Hiding from the snow in street stalls while sipping on hot Turkish tea made me feel like I was in some movie. Cruising the Bosphorus in a thick cloudy haze while teaching a Turkish family how to play Uno would’ve never happened had I been basking in the sun instead. Smaller crowds at major attractions and cities were another added plus.

Cappadocia, Turkey

Snow covered hills of Cappadocia.

It was a unique look at a timeless country but unfortunately, likely the last time it was safe and sane to visit Turkey for a long while.

– – –

Since early January 2016, the past year half have brought tourism in Turkey to a screeching halt. Increasing terrorist attacks and political unrest have completely changed the landscape of the country. In Istanbul alone, six attacks occurred throughout 2016.

On January 12th, a suicide bomber attacked the most popular tourist destination in Istanbul killing 13 tourists. This was followed on March 19th by another bombing on popular Istiklal street in Istanbul killing 4 tourists. On June 7, another suicide bomber killed 12 and injured 51. Not even a month later, brazen ISIS terrorists attacked the main airport in the country killing 45 and injuring over 230. Then in December, another bombing occurred outside of a football stadium killing 46 innocent bystanders. And finally, to top it all off, on New Years Eve, an attack at an upscale nightclub killed 39 and injured 70.

Keep in mind, these were only attacks that occurred in Istanbul and there were far more that happened in the capital of Ankara and other cities.

As if this were not enough, on July 15, 2016, the Turkish military launched a coup against President Erdoğan. The uprising was swiftly crushed and what followed was the arrest and purge of huge swaths of the Turkish civilian population including judges, teachers, soldiers, and normal civilians.

The end result has been a dictatorial president solidifying his power and increasingly turning Turkey into an Islamist and autocratic country. Free speech and protesting have been suppressed and the ruling government recently blocked Wikipedia.

Not surprisingly, tourists took notice. In 2015, there were over 36 million visitors. This dropped drastically in 2016 to 25 million, representing an enormous 30% year over year decline. Levels this low haven’t been seen since 2010 and it’s likely 2017 will drop even further. Most western governments have set up travel warnings and it doesn’t look like the ISIS threat will be decreasing any time soon.

– – –

It’s such a shame what has happened to Turkey in the last year and a half. At this point, I’m not sure what can turn things around or how long such a recovery will take. The political environment is extremely hostile and continuing terrorist attacks only make matters worse.

For the Turkish people, it means increasing government suppression of civil liberties, a decrease in income from tourists, and a constant overhanging threat from Islamic extremist. It’s a sad state of affairs as normal citizens suffer.

But alas, that is the reality. And turning back to my original point: timing is everything. Had I not gone to Turkey when I did, it’s likely I would not have gone for a long time, if ever. Countries can change in the blink of an eye and it’s impossible to predict what they’ll look like afterwards.

In life and travel, it’s important to take advantage of opportunities when they arise because you never know how long they’ll last.

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