Bombing leaves Turkey tourism on the brink
Two days before our Princess cruise ship was scheduled to call at Istanbul last month, a terrorist car bomb killed 11 people near a popular subway stop in the city center. Amid both reassurances about stepped-up security and fears of new attacks, the ship docked as planned - but with hundreds of skittish passengers opting to stay on board. I wasn't among them. Lured onto the cruise by a last-minute, rock-bottom fare at a time when Eastern Mediterranean sales were slumping, I was thrilled to be back in Turkey's largest and most cosmopolitan city for my first visit in three decades. My husband and I strolled almost alone through the ethereal Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia, devoured lamb kebabs and honey-drenched baklava from a balcony overlooking the Bosphorus, and made immediate plans to return. Two weeks later, after a fabulous time in Istanbul and the otherworldly landscape of central Turkey's Cappadocia, we flew to Italy and were greeted by the horrific news that at least 41 people had died in a shooting and suicide bombing at Istanbul's Ataturk airport, one of the world's busiest. It was the fifth attack in Istanbul this year, and will undoubtedly be the death knell for a national tourism industry already battered by massive defections from international visitors. Turkey welcomed a record 37 million people in 2014, but by some accounts arrivals had already been down by close to 90% this year, particularly from Russia, Western Europe and the United States.
Yet even as we fielded anxious queries about our proximity to the carnage, I couldn't stop thinking about the warm hospitality we'd encountered throughout our stay. Despite a visible security presence in Istanbul (where we saw police gathering to prevent a planned gay pride parade) and in the relative backwater of Cappadocia (where the underside of our rental car was checked with mirrors as we entered the airport parking lot), we never feared for our safety.
I remember a restaurant owner in the shadow of Istanbul's medieval Galata Tower, the most famous landmark in a once-buzzing tourist neighborhood known for its tolerance and confluence of cultures, practically begging us to stay for dinner and telling us he would probably have to close because business had shriveled ever since a March suicide bombing on nearby Istiklal Street. The next evening we took an almost-empty elevator to the top of the tower, snapping photos at sunset and listening to the amplified calls to prayer as lights twinkled between the minarets of mosques and families gathered at the shores of the Bosphorus to break their daily fasts with picnics during Ramadan (called Ramazan in Turkey).
I recall, too, the kind family we met in a small Cappadocian village we'd stumbled into on our way to an ancient Silk Road caravanserai, a traditional refuge for travelers. We spoke no Turkish; they almost no English. But we were welcomed into their home and offered refreshing glasses of ayran, the national drink made with yogurt, water and salt. And when we said we were from America, their already broad smiles got even bigger...a potent reminder that in an age where "Muslim" is too often synonymous with "terrorist," humanity trumps hate.
On one of our last days in Cappadocia, after taking a discounted hot-air balloon ride over a forest of fairytale chimneys and spires carved from volcanic rock, we drove to a valley famous for its Byzantine churches. We stopped for lunch at an open-air restaurant, with rows of empty picnic tables lined up under a canopy of shade trees.
When he opened two years ago, the owner told us, he'd typically serve more than 200 tourists a day. Now, we were his only customers - a scenario repeated often during our two-week stay.
"Inshallah," he told us then, "times will be getting better soon."
It's a prayer for Turkey - and for the rest of the world, as well.