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It was shaping up to be a golden year for tourism in Turkey. With favorable exchange rates sweetening the deal for visitors, the country’s beautiful beaches, historic cities and geological wonders were poised for a post-pandemic tourism revival.
Then disaster struck. On February 6, a massive earthquake close to Turkey’s border with Syria caused major loss of life and leveled entire neighborhoods. The seismic shock and the emotional convulsions that followed were both felt across the country.
Even as they were processing the catastrophe and doing their best to support their compatriots caught up in it, many working in Turkey’s tourism industry realized they had a potential problem on their own hands: Would the disaster scare away visitors?
Of course, while this paled in comparison with the suffering of those in the quake zone, it was no less real. Tourism is hugely important for Turkey’s economy and the livelihoods of many depend on it. After Covid, visitors were needed more than ever.
Tourist reticence in the wake of a disaster is understandable. Vacationers tend to see news footage of any disaster zone and equate that with the country as a whole – even when that country is as geographically extensive as Turkey.
They will inevitably have questions. Is there any ongoing danger? Will they be a burden on their hosts at a time when the country is trying to recover? Will they be welcome? Understandably, they also want to know if they’ll still have a good time.
In the coming weeks, Turkey – also known as Türkiye – will be entering the start of its peak tourism season. With some reporting cancellations in the initial days and weeks after the earthquake, the country’s travel industry will be holding its breath.
Signs are good, says Kaan Kavaloğlu, chair of the Mediterranean Touristic Hoteliers Association. With flights operating as normal to most major destinations, and resorts and businesses all open, he’s confident the country is still in for a better year.
“We are in close contact with the tour operators of different countries and OTA [online travel agency] colleagues, who confirm that Türkiye is gearing up for another record-breaking summer season at all of its major destinations,” he told CNN Travel.
To gauge what’s happening on the ground and the kinds of welcome tourists can expect in some of Turkey’s leading destinations, CNN also spoke to those working to offer hotel, museum, shopping, yachting and other experiences to travelers.
Istanbul is the epitome of Turkish culture and is the gateway to the country for many.
It’s among the world’s leading travel destinations, where international visitors in 2022 spent more than $13 billion, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council.
Like most of Turkey’s prime tourist spots, Istanbul felt the shockwaves of the February 6 earthquake but sustained no damage. The city, home to 15 million residents, lies more than 800 kilometers (500 miles) from the quake’s epicenter.
At Çukurcuma Hamamı, a luxury bath house that has been welcoming visitors and locals into its steamy embrace since 1831, manager Büke Yurdadoğ is among many working in the travel industry concerned that the quake will scare away tourists.
While she, like others, is still reeling from the scale of the tragedy and shares concerns for its victims, there’s worry that tourists will strike Istanbul from their itineraries because of recent events.
“We’re currently entering the high tourist season in Istanbul and compared to last year, there is a decrease in business, even if it’s a small one,” says Yurdadoğ.
“The earthquake has, of course, affected us all, both personally and as a business. We’re trying to help the affected provinces as much as we can while also striving to welcome guests to our hamam in the best way possible.
“Natural disasters are an inevitable fact of our world and Istanbul is a city that has existed for centuries and has hosted dozens of cultures and civilizations in the midst of this reality.”
Tourists, says Yurdadoğ, will still be beguiled by the variety of what Istanbul has to offer.
“It is a city that may appear chaotic from afar, but when visitors come here and begin to explore, they discover new mysteries at every corner. From the historic peninsula to Balat to Galata and to Moda, I think every neighborhood has something that attracts the interests of every traveler.”
She recommends the antique shops of Çukurcuma, the Sveti Stefan Church in Balat, the alleys around the Galata Tower, the Bosphorus Strait, the Sakıp Sabancı Museum overlooking the Bosphorus view, the Yeşilköy waterfront and its fishermen, and the Moda and Kuzguncuk neighborhoods.
Antalya, on Turkey’s southern Mediterranean coast, may be synonymous with resort vacations by its beach, but the city and province are destinations for history buffs and the nearby Taurus Mountains draw hikers. There are also quiet beach towns.
At the Olympos Mountain Lodge, a boutique hotel in the Antalya village of Beycik, owner and chef Mehmet Ali Börtücene presides over a refined eatery that focuses on seasonal produce.
Börtücene says the quake has had a significant impact on Antalya, which lies more than 600 kilometers (370 miles) from the epicenter, with tourist bookings down. Yet, he adds, visitors will help quake survivors.
“After the disaster, Antalya welcomed many earthquake victims who were left homeless and unemployed,” he says. “Tourists who come to this region will indirectly contribute to the healing process.
“Tourism is one of Turkey’s most important sources of income and so every tourist who comes here actually helps in the alleviation of this trauma. After the earthquake, tourism decreased in the Antalya region, the sadness that people felt naturally reduced our work considerably,” says Börtücene.
He says visitors to Beycik and Antalya will enjoy not only its coast but also pine, juniper and cedar forests and the ancient ruins of Çıralı, Olympos and Phaselis.
“There’s the Lycian Way, a marked long-distance hiking trail all along the coast with stunning views, the historic Gelidonya Lighthouse and pristine natural beauties such as the Beş Adalar Island and the Üçoluk highland village.”
Bodrum is synonymous with Turkey’s “Turquoise Coast,” a summer hotspot of luxury resorts and nightclubs but also of quieter seaside villages with humble seafood restaurants where evenings can be spent watching the moon reflect on calm waters.
Inside Bodrum’s bazaar, Gallery Mustafa owner Mustafa Açıkel and his son Murat sell hand-embroidered rugs, kilims and cushion covers. Açıkel says the quake has prompted concerned calls from regular clients but hopes tourism won’t take a hit.
“The earthquake affected us all emotionally,” he says. “Here in Bodrum people sent as much aid as possible to the affected areas and hotels opened their doors for the victims.
“The Aegean region may be on the earthquake fault line but we can’t say that it has adversely affected tourism. Our customers abroad called us to ask about the situation in the country but all plan to come in the summer.
“Economically speaking, tourism is one of Turkey’s biggest sources of income and so we need tourists to visit each year. We have a lot of workers who make a living from tourism, in every region in Turkey,” he adds.
Açıkel says visitors to Bodrum this year can find luxury and entertainment as well as a quiet and calm getaway. His highlights include a visit to Bodrum Castle, and the Theater and Mausoleum at Halicarnassus.
“I recommend a blue cruise for those who have time; visiting the food market on Fridays for the best organic produce; walking among the tangerine orchards in Bitez village; eating lunch at Köfteci Bilal’in Yeri and Sakallı Restaurant in the bazaar.
Also on his list, seafood at the Körfez and Gemibaşı restaurants, enjoying homemade dishes at Kısmet restaurant in Konacık and visiting the Dibeklihan Culture and Art Village and the beautiful garden and library at Zai Bodrum.
Turkey’s third most populous city, Izmir is also one of its most liberal, attracting summer crowds who like to hang out in the fashionable town of Alaçatı, go dancing at the beach clubs in Çeşme or wine tasting in Urla.
Inside six historic, renovated stone houses, Alavya is one of Izmir’s most exclusive boutique hotels. Zeynep Çiftçioğlu İpekçi, who works as its media and communications director, says bookings wavered after the disaster but not significantly.
“Even though Izmir is far away from the provinces affected by the earthquake, we were overcome with deep sadness,” she says. “However, we are making an effort to continue our work and to foster the peace, calmness and love that is the essence of Alavya.
“Of course, we have had some cancellations, but the majority of our guests have continued to come,” says Çiftçioğlu İpekçi.
She says visitors to Alaçatı will appreciate its historic cobblestoned streets, windmills, turquoise waters and summer wind breezes, as well as local produce.
“The Aegean kitchen, with its appetizers, herbs, desserts as well as the Çeşme melon, the Izmir fig and the Alaçatı artichoke are some of the most beautiful flavors in the world,” says Çiftçioğlu.
“Apart from UNESCO World Heritage Sites such as Ephesus and Bergama, Izmir has Seferihisar, Turkey’s first slow city (Cittaslow), the natural beauties of Karaburun, the seaside village of Ildır, the historic Birgi village and the beautiful bays, vineyards and fish restaurants on the road between Izmir city and Alaçatı.”
Çanakkale, on the southern shores of the Dardanelles Strait dividing Europe and Asia, is steeped in history. It’s known for the ancient city of Troy and the Martyrs’ Memorial to Turkish soldiers who died at nearby Gallipoli in World War I.
Completed by Yalın Architectural Design in 2018, the Museum of Troy appears like an extraterrestrial cube out in the vast countryside, covered in a rusted metal facade.
“There is a deep sadness in Çanakkale and all over Turkey because of this great disaster,” says Rıdvan Gölcük, the museum’s director. “After the earthquake, an important example of solidarity and mobilization was shown to collect aid for the affected regions.”
Gölcük says his museum has launched workshops to help rehabilitate families, including children who have moved to Çanakkale from quake-hit areas.
“We believe museums play an essential role in helping children face the future with confidence,” he says.
In addition to his museum, Gölcük says visitors should explore the nearby ruins of ancient Troy, the Martyrs’ Memorial and watch the sunset at the Sanctuary of Athena at Assos.
Also on his list is the island of Bozcaada, a short ferry ride away, Mount Ida (Kaz Dağları). Visitors can also sample wine from Bozcaada and cheese from Ezine.
“Tourism is important for Turkey, but not just because of economic factors,” Gölcük adds. “It is also a way for us to share our story, a form of communication that also allows us to write the story of our future together.”
A mystical landscape of wind-carved “fairy chimneys,” rock-cut churches and underground cities, Cappadocia is like nowhere else on Earth.
Inside a restored former monastery complex consisting of underground tunnels and houses, is Argos in Cappadocia, an award-winning hotel overlooking the popular trekking site of Pigeon Valley.
Situated just 300 kilometers (close to 190 miles) from the quake zone, Cappadocia is perfectly safe, the hotel’s manager, Deniz Karkın, insists.
“When considering the scientific data, Cappadocia is one of the regions in Turkey with the lowest earthquake risk,” he says. “Guests who are planning to visit Turkey can choose Cappadocia for their travels with peace of mind.”
The region’s landscape is the main draw for visitors, but the history of those who have carved their homes in the soft flanks of its cliffs are just as fascinating.
“Cappadocia is like something out of a fairy tale, a settlement where underground cities were carved out thousands of years ago,” says Karkın. It’s also known for its wines and as a cradle of Christianity.
“Guests who come here experience the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Göreme Open Air Museum, the underground cities of Kaymaklı and Derinkuyu, the Paşabağ Valley with its fairy chimneys, and the Love and Kızılçukur Valleys, which have the most stunning sunsets.
“Every morning the sky is colored with hundreds of hot-air balloons, offering guests a chance to see and photograph Cappadocia from above.”
Another tourist hotspot along the Turkish Riviera, Fethiye is known for its beaches, but historic sites such as the abandoned Greek village of Kayaköy give it a mysterious flair.
The small town of Göcek is a hub for yacht tourism. In one of its many marinas, Irmak Yüksel and her family offer bareboat and skippered charters.
Yüksel says she’s optimistic of good times ahead. Visitors, she adds, should have no fears for safety.
“Turkey is an earthquake-prone country so what’s important is that structures are sturdy and built according to code,” she says. “In light of this, I don’t think there is any heightened risk here in the Fethiye region.
“Like every sector, we were also deeply saddened and affected by the earthquake. Despite the fact that our excitement and enthusiasm was a bit broken, we are looking forward to hosting guests for the upcoming summer season.”
“Göcek is, of course, my favorite place in Fethiye because of the work we do. It has these beautiful bays that seem to have been made by hand like lacework. It is a unique town with lush nature, sailing tourism and an elite atmosphere” says Yüksel.
“Apart from taking a boat tour and going paragliding, tourists coming to Fethiye should visit the historic Kayaköy village, the ancient Greek Amyntas Rock Tombs, the Saklıkent National Park with its famous canyon, the Ölüdeniz Beach and hike part of the Lycian Way.”
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) have launched two emergency appeals with a total value of 200 million Swiss francs (around $214 million) to help relief efforts in both countries.
There are many other organizations who are also on the ground responding. You can help by clicking here.