ISTANBUL, June 2013 – Hotel reservations may be down after a week of violent mass protests in Turkey, but plucky tourists on the ground have taken the unrest in their stride.
“There was tear gas everywhere. It was quite an adventure,” said one visitor from Iceland.
Eva Carla Thorisdottir’s arrival in Istanbul in the heat of clashes between anti-government protesters and police a few days ago was “scary” but not off-putting, the 32-year-old Icelandic said, recalling how sympathetic bystanders helped clear makeshift road barriers to allow her taxi through.
Turkey’s largest city, where East meets West, is famed for its ancient mosques, exotic markets and bustling nightlife, luring nine million international visitors last year.
But it’s also where a tough police response to a small campaign against plans to raze a park near the city’s Taksim Square sparked nationwide protests against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government, seen as increasingly authoritarian.
The unrest has left three people dead so far, while over 4,000 have been reported injured across the country.
For the tourism industry, the timing could scarcely be worse: June is the start of Turkey’s high season.
Tourism is a key foreign currency earner for the country bringing in almost $30 billion last year, official figures show, when more than 31 million foreign holidaymakers flocked to Turkey to enjoy its golden beaches, historic ruins and vibrant cities.
But widely broadcast images of police using tear gas and water cannon on demonstrators who could be seen throwing stones and tearing up pavements in cities, including Istanbul and the capital Ankara, have rattled nerves.
Hotels on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast, a favoured destination for families on package holidays, have not yet been affected though “there has been a stagnation in new reservations”, according to Osman Ayik, the head of the Turkish Hoteliers Federation (TUROFED), suggesting that some travellers are waiting to see how Turkey’s crisis plays out.
Ercan Durmus, head of the Ankara branch of the Association of Turkish Travel Agencies (TURSAB), said there had been “some cancellations” but “we believe things will return to normal soon”.
In the new town area of Istanbul, where the unrest began, hotels have seen cancelations of 10 to 25 percent, according Kasim Zoto of TUROFED’s Istanbul branch.
One establishment, the Midtown Hotel near Taksim Square, told AFP that 35 percent of its bookings had been cancelled in recent days.
But for some intrepid travellers, the lively scene at the square and nearby Gezi Park, where a festival-like atmosphere has reigned since police withdrew at the weekend, has become its own must-see destination.
“Everybody seems quite relaxed,” said Joan Kavanagh from Dublin as she took in the chanting, whistle-blowing demonstrators milling around Taksim, where a few entrepreneurial vendors were hawking protective masks and goggles.
“It’s very interesting to take it all in. It doesn’t look nearly as threatening as I thought it would be.”
She said it was her son Tristan who insisted they visit the square on their first day on the Istanbul tourist trail.
“I came to see this,” the 35-year-old Irishman said, adding that he had been following events on Twitter to keep up to date.
Both said they felt at ease among the demonstrators, noting that the protests reminded them of the Occupy movement that took over the streets of Dublin two years ago.
But many other tourists, including Thorisdottir, have changed hotels to move to Istanbul’s old town — home to top attractions such as the Hagia Sofia with its ornate dome and the ancient Blue Mosque, with the added benefit of being safely separated from the restive new town by the Golden Horn body of water.
Snapping pictures in the rose garden of the imposing Topkapi Palace, the former home of Ottoman sultans, Thorisdottir said you would never guess there was any trouble across the river.
And thanks to her adventurous introduction to the city, she said she now has a good story to tell her friends back home.
“But it’s also a beautiful city, I will tell them that too,” she added.