T.OURISTS IN TURKEY are already spoiled. The food is excellent, the locals welcoming and the choice of vacation options, from mountain hikes on the Black Sea coast to boat trips on the Aegean Sea to hot air balloon rides over Cappadocia, lasts for several summers. In a lingering currency crisis, the dollar has appreciated nearly 60% against the lira in just over two years, meaning holidays in Turkey are getting cheap. A room in a luxury hotel can easily cost less than a tight Airbnb deal in a European capital. If only they can resist tweeting their thoughts on Recep Tayyip Erdogan (at least 36,000 people have been screened for insulting the thin-skinned president of Turkey in a single year), foreigners will receive a reward.
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Nowadays you will also be surprised, but whether it is welcome depends on the idea of a worthwhile vacation. To revive tourism, Turkey has exempted vacationers from Covid-19 bans. With locals ordered to stay home from late April through at least May 17, tourists almost had the country to themselves. Foreigners in Istanbul walk down empty streets and get on empty ferries. On the Mediterranean coast they laze on empty beaches and swim long, lonely. Turks caught doing this were torn out of the water by gendarmes and fined 3,180 lira (US $ 380), more than the minimum monthly wage. Locals cannot buy alcohol during lockdown due to a government ban. Foreigners can drink freely in hotels.
Things get even more interesting. As of May 15, travelers from more than a dozen countries, including the UK, will no longer be required to present a negative Covid-19 test upon arrival in Turkey. The foreign minister has now committed to “vaccinating everyone a tourist is likely to see” by the end of the month, ie hotel workers and the like. Turks, still waiting for their first shot and probably not in sight of a visiting foreigner, resisted. The introduction of the vaccine has slowed. Of the 100 million doses of the Sinovac vaccine that China intended to send to Turkey, only 27 million have arrived.
Turkey urgently needs the income from tourism. A few years ago the industry made $ 34.5 billion. That figure fell to $ 12.6 billion last year due to the pandemic, adding to the country’s already unhealthy current account deficit. This year could be worse. Tourism income between January and March fell by 40% compared to the same period last year. This week the UK put Turkey on the “Red List” for travel, banned visits for pleasure and imposed strict quarantine rules. This decision forced UEFA, Europe’s Football Association, to move a Champions League final between two English clubs, Manchester City and Chelsea, from Istanbul to Porto in Portugal. Russia, which sent more tourists to Turkey than any other country last year, suspended almost all flights to the country by June. This came after Erdogan criticized Russia’s annexation of Crimea and offered to support Ukraine’s plans to join NATO.
The new lockdown has caused Covid-19 infections, which rose to over 60,000 a day in April, which gives hope that tourism could recover in the summer. But closing the country to locals while rolling out the red carpet to foreigners has not been particularly well received. “Turkey unlimited”, you read a simulated tourism advertisement that is making the rounds on the Internet, accompanied by a picture of an almost deserted beach. “Now available without Turks.”
“That’s ridiculous,” says Kaan Alpan, a banker in Bodrum, a popular vacation spot on the Aegean coast. “If we had closed properly at the right time, we could have opened now.” If he were a foreigner, Mr. Alpan could cool off in the sea. As a Turk, he can only look forward to a short trip to the grocer. Even some tourists feel uncomfortable. Anara, who is visiting from Kazakhstan, says she has no plans to go swimming while her Turkish neighbors are stuck inside. “I wouldn’t want to do that to you,” she says. “That would be unfair.” ■
All of our stories about the pandemic and the vaccines can be found on ours Coronavirus Hub. You can hear too The jab, our podcast on the race between injections and infections, and Find Tracker the global introduction of vaccines, excessive deaths by country and the virus spreads over Europe and America.
This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the heading “Where Did Everyone Go?”