In 2015, Turkey was riding the high of a tourism boom that had people mentioning Istanbul, with its extraordinary history and a cosmopolitan but culturally diverse vibe, in the same breath as destinations such as Paris, New York, and Milan. A rich mix of history, culture and modern hotels, along with the global growth of Turkish Airlines, attracted tourists in record numbers.
According to the tourism ministry, visitation nearly doubled between 2004 and 2014, hitting a high of 36.8 million in 2014 and holding close to that, at 36.2 million, in 2015. But just as Istanbul was climbing to the top of the charts of the most popular international destinations, the city was hit in 2016 with a series of terrorist bombings, a deadly attack on Ataturk Airport and an attempted coup.
Three years after a series of terrorist attacks shook what had been an unprecedented boom in tourism to Turkey, inbound travel is better than expected, and the country is positioning itself with cautious optimism to regain its stature as a top tourism hot spot, becoming the global hub between East and West.
In October, the first phase of what officials say will be the largest airport in the world opens here. Turkish Airlines flies to more countries than any other carrier, and it is adding flights and packages to lure travelers to and through the city, rather than to other European or Middle Eastern points.
Next year, a refurbished cruise port opens in Istanbul that officials are hoping will attract many of the major cruise lines that abandoned the country after a series of terrorist attacks and an attempted coup in 2016.
The two major projects will reach completion as hoteliers and travel companies dare finally talk of a recovery from the events that all but shut down tourism to the country. In Istanbul, the hotel representatives said their once free-falling occupancies have been hovering around 80% this spring.
Much of the new demand, they said, is coming from the Middle East, South America and Russia. The return of Europeans and Americans is slower but is growing nonetheless. In the coastal resort city of Bodrum, summer is almost fully booked. The Ariana Sustainable Luxury Lodge in Cappadocia said it is expecting its best season since opening just before the unrest began. The industry still watches the news closely with a bit of anxiety about new travel bans and such, underscoring how fragile the recovery remains.
Overall, however, they seem confident the political situation has stabilized, and recovery is ahead. And with a favorable exchange rate (one dollar buys 4.46 Turkish lira), lower hotel rates and special packages, now is a great time for American tourists and others to put Turkey back on their bucket lists.
Photo by Robert Raderschatt