Erkal Aykac spent more than three decades showing Western tourists his beloved Turkey, meeting cruise ships in various ports, and shepherding groups through Hagia Sophia Church Museum and other ancient treasures in Istanbul.
With four university degrees and speaking fluent English, he made enough for a comfortable life in Istanbul. He sent his daughter to boarding school, and handled the medical bills for his aging father. But the past three years have hit him hard, and with Turkey now facing an all-out economic crisis, he is bracing for the worst.
The Turkish lira has dropped 35 percent over the past year, and tariffs recently announced by the Trump administration don’t bode well for the troubled currency. Though the lira has fluctuated in recent days, at one point it hit record lows against the United States dollar, setting off a panic over a potential domino effect that could reach other emerging markets.
It was more bad news for a country that had only just begun to rebound from a horrific period of terrorism, including the June 2016 shooting-and-bombing attack at Ataturk International Airport that claimed 45 lives, and the March 2016 suicide attack on Istanbul’s Istikal Street in the city’s shopping district.
The wave of attacks crippled the nation’s tourism sector, and a bloody failed coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his government in July 2016, followed by a widespread crackdown, political instability and diplomatic rows with the United States, Germany and the Netherlands, all served to further alarm potential Western visitors. Tourism from the United States dipped more than 40 percent from 2015 to 2017, part of a plunge that saw visitor numbers to the country sag about 30 percent.
In May, the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism announced that visitor numbers were rebounding in 2018 — although the face of tourism to the Anatolian Peninsula looks decidedly different. Into the vacuum have come more and more holidaymakers from Russia, Asia and the Middle East, who have found Turkey — with its battered economy and cultural bounty — a newly affordable destination.
Indeed, the exchange rate might lure some visitors. Even before the recent crisis, the average rate for a hotel room in Turkey in April 2017 stood at 67.4 euro, still a long ways off from its average of April 2015, which stood at 105 euro.
Firuz B. Baglikaya, the president of the Association of Turkish Travel Agencies, said that tourism growth over the past year has broken all records, and he is optimistic about continued growth from all parts of the world, including Europe.
“We are utterly pleased to see tangible improvement in all source markets,” he said. “We are expecting a record number of visitors this year. I am quite certain that we will reach the target of 40 million with $32 billion revenue by the end of the year, unless developments beyond our control have a negative deteriorating impact.”
The steady pace of new visitors has kept the hotel industry in Turkey chugging along, with the Hotel Association of Turkey reporting occupancy rates in 2017 spiking over 2016, in large part thanks to the changing demographic of visitors. The Hilton Hotel group, which has 90 properties either open in Turkey or in the works across its Hilton, Conrad, Hilton Garden Inn, Doubletree and Hampton brands, reported a 62 percent rise in the number of rooms occupied by guests from Iran and nations in the Persian Gulf alone.
The influx has also given the luxury market a push; in coastal resort towns like Antalya, on the nation’s Turquoise Coast, and Bodrum, which Homer called the Land of the Eternal Blue, the pace of high-end development is impressive. In Bodrum alone, the past three years have seen the opening of a Lux, a Nikki Beach and the Bodrum Edition, a boutique from Marriott and the Studio 54 co-founder Ian Schrager. A Banyan Tree, a Four Seasons and the first Hyatt Centric resort in Turkey are scheduled to join the pack in the coming years. Most of the coastal resorts offer packages geared toward Arab and Russian visitors, as well as programs for medical tourists.
But Westerners with business ties to Turkey warn that the weak Turkish economy will take its toll. Marcus Moufarrige, the chief executive officer of Servcorp, a multinational office-space provider with properties in Turkey, said that this week, as the Turkish lira crisis unfolded, that he put the brakes on a real estate deal because the landlord refused to accept Turkish lira for payment, insisting on only United States dollars. Turkey may have been able to rebound from terrorism, he said, but economic woes can pose a much greater risk for business.
“If you look historically at emerging markets, the geopolitical situation hasn’t alway been the biggest deterrent [for investment], unless there are sanctions in place,” said Mr. Moufarrige, who steered Servcorp’s Asian operations through political crises in Malaysia and Thailand. “It’s really only when the economy hits the fan that people get spooked.”
In the short term, some Europeans are jumping at the chance to travel to Turkey. The lure of a bargain break has already pushed up numbers this month from Britain, with direct flights between Turkey and Britain now selling at nearly the same rate as 2015. And those new tourists are following the path of the Russian, Arab and Asian tourists who prefer inclusive resorts and prepaid group trips.
“The tourism industry here has completely changed,” Mr. Aykac, the tour guide, said. “For the past two years, I haven’t received a single call for business from my ordinary clients.” To make ends meet, Mr. Aykac has begun working with Taiwanese groups, partnering with an English-speaking Taiwanese guide who translates his notes into Chinese. The double translation creates a barrier between himself and his tourists, Mr. Aykac said. “It’s almost like two blind guys conversing with each other,” he said.
While many Americans have hesitated to return, visitors from Iran and elsewhere have poured into the country. In 2017, 2.5 million Farsi-speaking tourists arrived in Turkey, a 50 percent increase over the previous year. Turkey shares a 310-mile land border with Iran, and on June 18, train service from the northwestern Iranian city of Tabriz resumed to the Turkish border town of Van after being halted three years ago following a bomb attack.
And the increasing numbers of visitors from Kuwait, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia has resulted in wider availability of halal food and Farsi- and Arab-language menus.
“In Istanbul, a vast number of shops, restaurants and cafes have opened up that cater specifically to Middle Eastern tourists,” said Paul Osterlund, a New Mexico native who has worked as a journalist in Istanbul for eight years.
And while the sights and inexpensive shopping in Turkey are part of the appeal for this new sector, it’s the nation’s relaxed attitudes toward alcohol and female dress that make it a particularly appealing getaway for Muslim visitors who want to let loose. Middle Eastern medical tourists — particularly those in search of cut-rate hair transplant surgeries — are also realizing that Turkish doctors offer procedures at attractive prices.
But whether or not the cafes and shops are full, Turkey feels irrevocably changed, said Mr. Osterlund. “The sporadic violence and horror of 2016 is gone, [but] the air remains thick with political tension,” he said.
For guides who cater specifically to English-speaking tourists, times remain tough. Ansel Mullins co-founded Culinary Backstreets, his now-global gastronomic tour company, from Istanbul in 2009. The company (which employs Mr. Osterlund as a freelance writer) now runs English-language food tours in 13 international cities, but Mr. Mullins said that interest in his Istanbul offering fell 80 percent from 2015 to 2016. Numbers are creeping back up in 2018, but have yet to fully rebound. Tour groups as a whole from Western nations are not returning to Turkey yet, he said.
Independent travelers are, though, and they seem less concerned about the nation’s political alliances. Mr. Mullins draws a comparison to Egypt, another nation that has suffered terrorism and government instability. “There are places that have timeless beauty, and that can often trump who’s in power.”
For Mr. Aykac, however, that uptick may not come soon enough. Frustrated by a lack of work, and rising inflation, he plans to leave Istanbul in the next few years. But he’ll stay in Turkey, he said. “Turkey is the highlight of all the countries in the world,” he said. “You can find anything here. But with the political situation and the economics, we are releasing every last knot in our belts. We are now coming down to the last hole, and it’s unbearable.”