The UK Foreign Office says the country is ‘generally safe’ as it starts to rebuild its tourism sector
After a series of terrorist attacks, a failed attempted coup and a referendum that saw Recep Tayyip Erdogan strengthen his grip on power, Turkey has begun to slowly restore its tourism sector.
Famed for its beaches, food and weather, the Mediterranean country attracted around 42 million foreign tourists in 2014, making it the sixth most popular tourist destination in the world. However, a politically tumultuous few years has seen tourism dip to almost half that in the years since, welcoming just 24 million foreign visitors in 2016.
“After a year filled with intense security campaigns and media advertising, Turkey’s tourism market grew in 2017,” writes the International Travel and Health Insurance Journal. “The flight market between the UK and Turkey is set to play a major part in this comeback after many UK airlines drastically increased their seat capacity.”
But after a period of such unrest, is Turkey a safe place to holiday?
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has lifted a number of warnings on visiting Turkey that were in place for the past few years, although it still advises caution. It says “most visits are trouble free”, but adds that visitors should “be alert to your surroundings and remain vigilant in crowded places”.
It gives most of the country a green label, indicating travel is safe, with the exception of a few regions.
However, the US Department of State (DOS) currently places the whole of Turkey at “Level 3”, the second-most severe of its four travel warnings, indicating that visitors should “reconsider travel” to the country, citing the risk of terrorism and arbitrary detentions.
The FCO says additional security measures may apply to flights departing from Turkey to the UK, advising Britons to “co-operate fully with security officials”. Passengers have also reported being taken aside for private interviews by UK police and border forces before flying out to Turkey, with questions about the reasons for their stay, so it is worthwhile having that information at hand.
This advice also applies to road travel across the country, the department says, adding that there is currently a “larger than usual number of police checkpoints on main roads across Turkey”. It also warns that tourists must not attempt to take photos or videos of any sensitive military facilities.
Although homosexuality is legal in Turkey, the FCO says many parts of Turkey are socially conservative and public displays of affection may lead to unwelcome attention. Tourists are also likely to face arrest if they insult the Turkish nation or deface the national flag or currency, offences that come with prison sentences of between six months and three years.
Ankara and Istanbul
The FCO has advised that Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city, and Ankara, its capital, are mostly safe.
However, it warns that, much like other major cities, precautions should be taken to avoid the chances of being caught up in civil unrest or a terrorist attack.
The FCO says that “most terrorist attacks have taken place in Ankara and Istanbul”, but adds that “attacks are most likely to target the Turkish state, civilians and demonstrations” rather than tourist hotspots.
“Nevertheless, it’s likely that some attacks will also target western interests and tourists from western countries, particularly in the major cities.”
The DOS says that although the risk to tourists is generally low, foreigners should still “stay alert in locations frequented by Westerners”.
Visitors to the major tourist areas of Istanbul should also look out for street robbery and pick-pocketing, which are common in the region.
Western Turkey and the Riviera
The Turkish Riviera, in the west of the country, is a stretch of coastline boasting some of the finest beaches in Europe and is the most commonly visited region of Turkey by tourists.
The Daily Telegraph writes that “the majority of attacks have been in cities, away from the coastal areas popular with tourists”.
The FCO says coastal resorts, where the majority of British tourists go, remain safe and “do not appear to be significantly affected” by terrorism. The resort city of Marmaris was briefly given a travel warning by the FCO at the time of 2016’s failed coup d’etat but has since been lifted, the Telegraph adds.
Terrorism aside, the region is also the target of burglaries and other similar crimes, the FCO says. According to the department, passports and other valuables have been stolen from rented villas “even when they have been kept in the villa safe”. This is a “particular problem in Didim, Kas, Kalkan and the Fethiye/Hisaronu/Ovacik areas”, all of which are situated on the Riviera, it says.
Despite its remoteness and weaker infrastructure, central Turkey had seen a rise in tourism in the years leading up to 2016. Most visitors head to the ancient region of Cappadocia, which has become well known for its unusual rock formations and cave hotels.
Central Turkey has also been given a green light by the FCO, which has no warnings in place for the region.
Lonely Planet writes that “even compared to many other popular traveller destinations across the world, Cappadocia remains an incredibly safe place”, including for solo female travellers.
Although the social unrest in major cities and areas to the west has simmered down, Eastern Turkey remains the least politically stable region of the country.
The FCO warns against all but essential travel to the provinces of Sirnak, Mardin, Sanliurfa, Gaziantep, Kilis, Hatay Siirt, Tunceli and Hakkari, and has imposed a warning against all travel to within 10km of the borders with Syria and Iraq, as well as the city of Diyabakar.
These provinces are mostly populated by Kurds, who have been embroiled in a conflict with the Turkish government over autonomy since 1978. In the decades since then, this region has been the site of numerous battles that have left at least 50,000 people dead, including civilians.
Furthermore, spillover conflict from the civil war in Syria, the presence of insurgent groups in Iraq and a constant stream of refugees from the two countries means tourists attempting to visit the border regions would be in extreme danger at all times.
“Large-scale terrorist attacks including suicide bombings, ambushes, car bomb detonations, improvised explosive devices, as well as kidnappings for ransom, shootings, roadblocks, and violent demonstrations have occurred in these areas,” the DOS writes.
July travel advice update
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) updated its travel advice in July following the presidential and parliamentary elections in Turkey.
The FCO says: “The situation has calmed following an attempted coup on 15 to 16 July 2016. But the security environment remains potentially volatile and a state of emergency is in place.”
However, there is a “heightened threat of terrorist attack globally against UK interests and British nationals, from groups or individuals motivated by the conflict in Iraq and Syria” so travellers should remain vigilant.
The FCO warns that people should not travel within 10km of the border with Syria or to the city of Diyarbakir.
It also advises against all but essential travel to the remaining areas of Sirnak, Mardin, Sanliurfa, Gaziantep, Diyarbakir, Kilis and Hatay provinces, and the provinces of Siirt, Tunceli and Hakkari.
According to the latest governmental advice, “most terrorist attacks have taken place in the south and east of the country and in Ankara and Istanbul. Attacks are most likely to target the Turkish state, civilians and demonstrations. Nevertheless, it’s likely that some attacks will also target western interests and tourists from western countries, particularly in the major cities.”
15 August is the anniversary of the first PKK attack against Turkish government installations. Historically, this anniversary date has prompted an escalation of violence by the PKK and other splinter groups.