Turkey, Tourists and Troubles


In a special feature, following the failed coup in Turkey one year ago, Nathalie Bonney laments the impact on one of the country’s principal desirable tourist destinations, Bodrum…

You’re going to Turkey? Oh, right, but not Istanbul? When I told various people I was going on a mini hen do to Turkey inevitably I was met with more than a few raised eyebrows. Turkey finds itself ruled by the increasingly strict president Erdogan; cities Istanbul and Ankara have suffered various terrorist attacks and, one year ago this week, the country was also subject to a failed military coup.

It’s no surprise then that that visitor numbers to Turkey plummeted by 30% in 2016. And yet the vast majority of the country is coloured in green by the FCO travel website (safe to go but with a recommendation to check local travel advice ahead of any trips). As a result hotels are offering significant (as in 70%) discounts on room rates while restaurants, bars, cafes and shops are falling over the tourists that are still coming to the country, eager to prove their country is still a safe – and great – place to visit.

Heading to the mediterranean side of the country, we never felt unsafe on our travels but it was desperately sad to see individuals now struggling to make a living in an area that had previously been saturated with overseas visitors.

Before my sister and I started doing our own thing, one of my last family holidays was to Turgutreis. Then described as a ‘bustling fishing village’, now a full-blown tourist resort near Bodrum. Our days consisted of swimming all day, eating pide and fish dishes, and buying as many knock-off Nike and Ralph Lauren Polo shirts at the bazaars as we could stuff in our suitcases. We went on the obligatory day trip to Bodrum, taking in the Saint Peter castle and trying to find a shady spot in one of the heaving restaurants.

Roll on 15 or so years and my sister Claire and I are back on the Aegean coast alongside my sister’s other bridesmaid Faye for a mini hen do. Same sister, same sunshine but such a different vibe.

Worried we won’t manage to get a table we book ahead at the Kocadon restaurant in Bodrum. We almost have the whole courtyard to ourselves and waiting staff, in white shirts to match the crisp table linens, fall over themselves to serve real life tourists. We feast on courgette flowers stuffed with cinnamon-flavoured rice, tzatziki with wild herbs and grouper with flaked almonds.

Afterwards, shopping around the market, we meet Mustafa, owner of a rug and kilim shop. Ornately embroidered silk cushion covers line the downstairs walls, along with geometric patterned rugs and kilims covering any spare wall space. Faye casually mentions she might buy a rug. Mustafa tries not to combust with joy. Faye says she’ll sleep on it. Mustafa offers us tea, more carpets upstairs, a discount, anything to ensure we don’t leave the shop empty-handed. Fading photos of a younger Mustafa show the owner with the likes of Bette Midler and Valentino. Another photo shows Mustafa with his teenage son who he hopes will go to university. I buy a Kilim. Mustafa smiles like Bette’s just walked back in the shop again.

As we exit he implores, “you girls tell others to come to Turkey. Business here now is slow because some people think it’s not so safe but I remember in the 70s – terrorism is not a new thing. These people are fanatics. I say we want peace on this planet.”

Not sure a comparative scale of terrorism is the best way to attract more tourists but I loved Mustafa’s heartfelt pleas and reasoning with the goodness in us. He went on: “I was in Kansas City, America, working in a waffle place and a pregnant lady was sick and I helped her. Whether you are Christian, Muslim or whatever you should love everybody. We are only on this planet a short time, only God decides what happens.”

Oh, Mustafa. I’m tempted to go back in and buy more cushion covers. My luggage allowance and budget stop me. But only momentarily. At the nearby sandal shop, Bodrum & Arkadas, Sandalet the owner shows me his hands: the tips of his thumbs and fingers are so swollen they are larger than the rest of their prospective digits. He took over from his father and makes all the beautiful sandals and bags by hand, using simple tools at his workshop. I buy two pairs of shoes.

The ghost town vibe continues at our hotel. We are staying at the bombastic Bodrum Palace, formerly part of the Jumeirah hotel group, well-known for its lavish hotels, and now owned by the Paramount company. Yes, our bathroom suites are painted gold thank you very much, and yes, we have our own jacuzzi, and yes, we eat baklava and strawberries dipped in chocolate while wrapped in fluffy pink robes and slippers on our private decking.

But it’s oh so quiet.  There’s no need to rush for a lounger by the gorgeous, large communal pool; the water slides are turned on specifically for us because the other clients are real adults and there’s no embarrassment when we are scrubbed down for our traditional Turkish hammam in the palatial spa because no one else is there.

Much like when Claire and I hung out at our Turgutreis inflatable pool, our days consist of swimming and sunbathing, albeit in a far more luxurious location and with more cocktails and calamari (we weren’t ready for squid, aged 15 and 18, respectively).

A day at one of the hotel’s beachside cabanas is the standout experience of our trip. We jump into the turquoise sea, while listening to Fleetwood Mac playing through our bluetooth speaker. We don’t want to go home. We wished we’d stayed more days. Just like Turgutreis…

So often we go on holiday, bemoaning the hordes of tourists and how they can detract from the charm and beauty of a place. While we personally gained from the low number of tourists (no one likes sunlounger stress), it was so sad to speak to the staff and see their worry and frustration at the lack of visitors coming to their country.

Everyone has to decide for themselves where they feel comfortable holidaying, whether for safety consciousness or political conscience, but I’d urge anyone who’s parking Turkey for a year or two to at least look at the travel advice on the FCO before passing over it.

For more information about tourism in Turkey, including details about destinations and what to see and do, visit www.goturkeytourism.com. For travel advice to Turkey from the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office, visit www.gov.uk.

For more information about the Bodrum Palace, visit www.thebodrumbyphr.com.