We’ve had some emails from friends and readers asking: is it safe to travel to Turkey now? Terence and I have been travelling to Turkey for 13 years, since we first went for a summer with a friend. That initial trip we travelled by bus and train from Istanbul down the Aegean coast, then hired a car for a road trip along most of the southern Mediterranean coast before looping back inland and heading north via Ankara to Istanbul. We fell in love with the country in the process.
We’ve been to Turkey myriad times since. Mostly to write, whether it was articles on the destination, or using Turkey as a base to write books and stories as we did in Antalya (where we rented an Ottoman house in the old town for a month) and Kas (where we stayed for a couple of months in a friend’s house overlooking the sea). We’ve written on everything from Turkish food and Istanbul’s restaurants, and local fashion and boutique hotels, to long narratives based on our travels and time spent settling in, particularly in Istanbul.
So is it safe to travel in Turkey? Well, yes it is, depending on where you go. For some reason people see the images of violence on the television and Internet and bafflingly they think the whole of Turkey is dangerous. They don’t understand that the protests and conflicts with police are limited to certain places.
While there’s trouble in Istanbul, most of it has actually been confined to Taksim, one of our favourite neighbourhoods. However, the area where we recommend people visit for their first trip to Istanbul, Sultanahmet, where most of the historic sights such as the stupendous mosques and fabulous Grand Bazaar are situated, has so far been trouble-free. Whereas Taksim, where we’ve stayed many times and strolled across the square and park where the demonstrations have taken place, has been at the centre of the dispute, and hasn’t been safe.
The situation in Turkey reminds me of when we lived in Abu Dhabi, our home for five years, in the United Arab Emirates. We were there during the American occupation of Iraq and I vividly recall when the first US strikes occurred and were televised live on CNN. I stayed up all night, transfixed by the television coverage. It was horrific and it was scary, although my fear was for the Iraqi people as we were perfectly safe some 1,850 kilometres away.
Yet our worried family and friends phoned and emailed to make sure we were safe. We were in the Middle East after all. And let’s face it, when we moved to the UAE in 1998 very few people could pin the UAE on a map and Dubai wasn’t yet the tourist destination it would come to be. The only tourists back then were Russians, other Gulf Arabs, and the families and friends of expats. How things have changed.
There were definitely periods where there was some concern in the UAE and the rest of the Arabian Peninsula, for a whole lot of reasons. Our embassy asked residents to register and sign up for Australia’s Smart Traveller service, and we subsequently received periodic warnings as advice levels changed. Water cooler conversation at the university where we worked revolved around which country’s warning levels had changed – or not. Should we pack our emergency bag yet? At one point, we were advised that we should. Were we in real danger? We were almost 2000 kilometres away!
I’m also reminded of another incident in Salvador in Brazil almost, gulp, 20 years ago. I had gone to South America for a year of in-country research for my first Masters degree, which was in International Studies. I was researching Postmodern Latin American Cinema and my itinerary was dictated by film festivals and conferences, but in between filmy stuff I would do some travelling.
I’d taken a day off in Salvador after a small festival to go to the beach and had a lazy day in the gorgeous sunshine, swimming and snacking on Bahia’s seaside version of ‘street’ food, cooked by vendors right on the sand. After, as I had to stock up on some supplies, I located a shopping mall on my map and set off on foot, taking some backstreets I wasn’t familiar with. I turned a corner into a commercial street, which I guessed would be busy, only to find the shops closed and myself walking right into a stand off between a few dozen heavily armed police with gas masks and shields, and demonstrators in balaclavas at the opposite end of the street.
I froze, looked at my map, and realised it was way too far to loop back, that I’d then be walking in the dark. I was almost there so I decided to take a chance. I looked at the policeman standing nearest to me – none of them seemed bothered by my presence – and he waved for me to go ahead, pointing me in the direction of the demonstrators. I hurried the hell out of there, turning the corner halfway before reaching them, and bolted in the direction of the shopping centre and away from the impending riot.
Two blocks away, the mall was an oasis of calm, busy with locals shopping, the elevator music and air-conditioning setting a tranquil tone. Once I got over my astonishment that shoppers were blissfully unaware of what was going on just down the street, I did what I had to do, then went and saw a movie. A couple of hours later I was in a taxi back to the old town. Back at the hotel, nobody had heard about the trouble downtown.
So should you go to Turkey? Yes. It’s one of our favourite countries. Read our Istanbul posts here. Just stay abreast of the situation, monitor the press, and consult locals, to ensure you avoid any trouble. Check the websites of your country’s foreign affairs department or Turkish embassy for advisories, consult local news channels, and check local blogs and sites. If you’re heading off on a holiday in Turkey or even planning on settling in for a while as we like to do there, as much as we love Taksim – and some recent reports have suggested the protests were subsiding there (for example, the New York Times), while others are suggesting things are heating up again (SBS) – it might not be a good idea to book a hotel or apartment there just yet.
Good sources of travel safety information for Turkey and other places
Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s Smart Traveller
The information here is very concise but it’s also very specific and up-to-the-minute. For instance, at the moment, advice issued yesterday says “authorities have reopened the road leading to Taksim Square in front of the Ritz Carlton Hotel, close to the Australian Consulate-General in Istanbul. We continue to advise you to exercise a high degree of caution in Turkey because of the high threat of terrorist attack and to avoid all protests and demonstrations.” Be careful and avoid protests and demonstrations, which means, forget about taking short cuts.
UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office
This is one of the best sources of advice on whether you should travel to places with some of the most detailed, accurate and realistic information. The current status for Turkey at the time of writing this post is: “The FCO advise against all but essential travel to parts of the country”. Note the keyword there: “parts”. I love that they write at the end of their Turkey advice: “Over 2,500,000 British nationals visit Turkey every year. Most visits are trouble free.”
US Department of State travel site
Information is pretty general – more like a travel guide – but there are links to the US embassy sites in the country where you can get more specific information.