In the aftermath of the tragic suicide bomber attacks at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport, Turkey’s biggest city now feels like a ghost town.
Restaurants sit empty in the Sultanahmet tourist district, and five-star hotel rooms can be booked for bargain prices. As AFP reports, in better times, the queues outside the Hagia Sophia (a former mosque and church that is now a museum) might have stretched an hour or longer at this time of year, today you can walk straight in and share the place with just a smattering of other visitors.
“It’s disastrous. All my life I’ve been a tour guide, most of us have come to a turning point where we don’t know if we can go on. It’s tragic.” said Orhan Sonmez, hopelessly offering tours of the Hagia Sophia.
Analysts say the attack on Istanbul’s airport may have been a deliberate attempt to weaken the Turkish state by hitting its tourist industry, and it appears to be working. The United States, Germany and several other countries have warned their nationals against threats in Turkey, and to make matters worse, the TAK, a radical Kurdish group that has carried out several attacks in Turkey this year has also warned foreign tourists to stay away.
This development comes at a time when Turkey had just suffered its worst drop-off in visits in 22 years in the month of May, which was down 35% from a year ago. The tourism industry, which according to AFP brings in over $33 billion a year, is now in a free fall.
Part of the downturn was driven by a Russian ban on Turkish package holidays, but the ban has since been lifted, providing at least a small relief for the industry.
Those that are still visiting say they are enjoying the peace and quiet, while taking a more philosophical approach as AFP puts it. “This could happen in any city, it’s an unlucky lottery. The people are really friendly, and I really think I’ll come back and spend some more time here.” said Nessa Feehan, a visitor for Ireland.
However, the situation is still dire for many who depend on tourism to make a living.
“If it goes on like this, many shops will close. I’m thinking of moving to America, I can’t make money here.” said Ismail Celebi, an owner of a jewellery shop. Even though large Chinese tour groups are still arriving, Celebi says “It’s not enough, we need Americans, we need Europeans.”
“Even I’m afraid to come to work here” Celebi went on to say.
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These recent security concerns as well as the economic hits that Turkey has endured as a result of the attacks and overall tension in the region are key factors in President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s pivot to a softer approach in an attempt to strengthen diplomatic ties. As we reported last week, Erdogan even apologized to Vladimir Putin for the death of a Russian pilot, and even called Russia a “friend and a strategic partner.”
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