My husband will be traveling to Istanbul and Cappadocia soon. With the news of air strikes surrounding Syria and Turkey, is it safe to travel there?
I’ve been getting this question a lot lately, what with the rise of ISIS and U.S. military action in Syria (Turkey’s neighbor to the southeast). When war is in the news, it can be scary for travelers. It might be easy to imagine that Turkey is a battlefield; we keep hearing about terrorists and an influx of refugees. But the reality for travelers to Turkey’s tourist areas is very different from what’s in the news.
As someone who has been to Turkey four times, including at times when many deemed it unsafe—I traveled the country on assignment for Condé Nast Traveler shortly after 9/11 and again in 2006 when the U.S. was at war with Iraq (in fact, I spent a week in southeastern Turkey within a few miles of the Syrian border)—I am here to tell you that Turkey is one of the safest places I know, filled with hospitable and friendly people.
There are so many countries that are viewed as precarious even though just one small pocket of the country is worrisome. It’s only when you’re on the ground there that you realize the extent to which life is uneventful and peaceful outside that pocket. That’s why the best way to get a sense of what Turkey is like for travelers right now is to talk to travelers who are there or have just come back. So, Alison, on your behalf, I’ve reached out to just such travelers. Here’s what they report:
What Turkey is Like for Travelers Right Now
Tom Martin of Minneapolis, Minnesota, had planned his trip to Turkey long before the current situation developed, and he started to have second thoughts over the summer. “As our departure date approached,” he said in an email, “the daily drumbeat of increasingly alarming stories in The New York Times became a matter of considerable concern and anxiety, to the point of causing me to question whether we should cancel the trip. In the end, we did not change our itinerary at all.”
When he landed in Turkey, Mr. Martin saw with his own eyes the difference between what he’d been imagining and what Istanbul is really like. “The impression from the news in the U.S. is of a somewhat exotic, traditional country that is as progressive as a secularized Muslim country can be, but that remains somewhat poor and undeveloped,” Mr. Martin said. “I was, quite frankly, in shock to find a modern, affluent, and incredibly clean cosmopolitan city in Istanbul, efficient, modern airports, and generally friendly, accommodating people who truly were secular and in many areas very wealthy.”
David Hornik of Palo Alto, California, who was traveling with his wife, Pamela, had a similar experience. “There was a massive gulf between our safety concerns heading to Turkey and our experience in the country itself,” Mr. Hornik said. “We felt safer in Turkey than we do in most cities in Europe.”
Davi Weisberg and her husband, Michael Harrington, also had some preconceived notions about their trip. “Before we left, my main fear was that there would be a great deal of hostility toward Americans,” Ms. Weisberg said. “I never felt that! The Turkish people are warm and welcoming—just lovely people.”
Added Mr. Harrington, “We were in Cappadocia when the U.S. bombing of Syria started. That day we toured a number of small towns in the area, and I looked carefully for any negative response from the locals. (I am over six feet and clearly American, so I do stand out in a small village). Everyone was very friendly and welcoming—I did not observe a single negative glance or frown.”
4 Steps to Help You Decide Whether to Go
When weighing the risks vs. the benefits of travel to any destination viewed as uncertain, these steps will help.
Sure, there have been bombings in Istanbul in the past, but there have also been bombings in London, Madrid, Boston, and New York. A terrorist incident can happen anywhere at any time. The risk that any one individual traveler will be harmed in a military action or terrorist incident is statistically tiny. Since 9/11 travelers have increasingly come to realize this—and it’s one reason why tourism to Turkey has not suffered despite last year’s incidents. Tourism is up six percent from last year, according to Başaran Ulusoy, the president of the Association of Turkish Travel Agencies, and by the end of this year Turkey expects to host a record 42 million tourists. In fact, Istanbul was named the world’s top destination by TripAdvisor this year, based on millions of travelers’ reviews.
The U.S. State Department currently has no travel alert or travel warning in place for Turkey. Even when there is a State Department travel alert, I like to check other countries’ alerts to get a well-rounded picture—especially alerts from the U.K and Australian governments, which tend not to be as alarmist as the State Department can sometimes be. The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s travel advice for Turkey reminds us that 2.5 million British travelers visit Turkey every year and that “most visits are trouble-free.”
The U.K. alert advises “against all travel to the towns of Akḉakale and Ceylanpinar and against all but essential travel to areas within 10km of Turkey’s border with Syria.” That border is more than 800 miles from Istanbul. You’re likely not going to be anywhere near Akḉakale or Ceylanpinar.
The travelers quoted in this article were traveling under arrangements made by Turkey travel planner Earl Starkey, who lives in Istanbul and is one of my Trusted Travel Experts for Turkey. Here’s his Insider’s Guide to Istanbul, as well as his Insider’s Guide to Cappadocia. When Earl masterminds your trip—and his team of in-the-know fixers, expediters, English-speaking guides, and drivers go to work for you—you won’t have a care in the world when you’re on the ground in Turkey. I say that based on my own experience traveling with Earl and his team, as well as on feedback from dozens of travelers I’ve sent to him. To connect with Earl, click on the black CONTACT button below his photo here. (By connecting via that contact form, you get VIP status with the Trusted Travel Expert and you get entered into the WendyPerrin.com trip-monitoring service.)
6 Smart Precautions To Take When Traveling in Turkey
So you’ve decided to go? Here are smart steps you can take:
1. Enroll in the U.S. State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), so the Embassy can send you security updates and help you in an emergency. Here is further security advice from the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, which suggests that travelers “exercise extra caution in Turkey’s eastern and southeastern provinces.”
2. Choose a hotel that has CNN, BBC, and Al-Jazeera, so you can monitor the news in the mornings and evenings. Also make sure the hotel has reliable Internet access, so you can check local English-language news Web sites.
3. Avoid public gatherings or demonstrations. Don’t get caught in an angry mob. Avoid neighborhoods where emigrants from Syria live.
4. Don’t photograph government buildings, military installations, airports, train stations, policemen, guards, or anyone who doesn’t want his/her photo taken.
5. Carry your hotel’s business card—the one written in Turkish—so you can show it to non-English-speaking locals (such as a taxi driver) and get back to your hotel in an emergency.
6. Carry a cell phone programmed with emergency numbers (for the police, your hotel, and medical emergencies), as well as a mini-flashlight (in case you’re caught in the dark).