Airport attack in Istanbul could make a slow tourism season even grimmer
The sun set long ago on the Byzantine emperors who ruled from this ancient city, known then as Constantinople. The First World War did away with the Ottoman sultans who presided over far-off subjects from the city’s majestic palaces. But even as empires rose and then fell here, what is now called Istanbul has endured as a bustling hub linking East with West — and beyond. In more recent years, the city has filled with tourists from around the world. But they aren’t coming like they once did.
That scares Sinan Yillaz, who sells handmade chess and backgammon pieces at a small shop in Istanbul’s 15th-century Grand Bazaar.
The attack on Tuesday at the city’s international airport by three suspected Islamic State suicide bombers killed at least 44 people and wounded more than 200. Many people fear that will make an already tough tourism season even grimmer. The attack was just the latest in a wave of bombings to hit Turkey over the past year, and apparently has spooked customers away from Yillaz’s shop.
On Thursday, it was empty. “It’s the terrorism,” said the 29-year-old Turk, who has worked in this famous covered market area for 12 years. “Why come here when there’s terrorism? That’s what the tourists are thinking, because I’ve never seen it so empty here.” As he spoke, there was no din of European and Arab tourists haggling with jewelry and textiles traders, no screaming children and no hustle and bustle. It was quiet, and Yillaz felt unsettled by it all.
Many in this country of 75 million people are on edge because of attacks carried out by Kurdish separatists and the Islamic State, which rules territory in neighboring Syria.
Tourism — a key moneymaker for Turkey’s economy — has dropped off a cliff in recent months. In April, tourists came to the country at the lowest rate in about 17 years, according to government data. An estimated 1.75 million people arrived that month, and hotel occupancy rates may have fallen by more than two-thirds.
“It’s already been difficult times for us, and it’s going to get bleaker and bleaker by the day,” said Emre Deliveli, an economic analyst who lives in Istanbul, a city of 14 million. In addition to more empty hotel rooms, he predicted that economic growth would slow and that inflation — hovering close to 8 percent — would continue stinging Turks.
Others expressed concern about the Islamic State, which appears to want to punish Turkey for backing an international coalition that is attacking the militant group in Syria and Iraq. No one has asserted responsibility for Tuesday’s attack, but officials have said they believe the group was behind it.
For Murat, 30, the uncertainty has already meant fewer German, Italian and Brazilian tourists who used to spend thousands of dollars each day on ornamental rugs at his shop in the historic Sultanahmet area of the city. Now, he faces what he described as an unprecedented crisis. “I haven’t sold a carpet in a month,” said Murat, who declined to give his last name because he feared retribution from authorities.He imports handmade carpets from Iran and Afghanistan. He pointed to one item that has been on display for months. “It’s worth about $5,500 — the finest silk, made in Turkey. No one will buy it. A year ago, it would have sold the moment I placed it on that wall,” he said.
Sultanahmet Mosque, popularly known as the Blue Mosque, towers over Murat’s shop. Also within walking distance is Hagia Sophia, what was once the world’s largest basilica but was turned into a mosque and then a museum. On Thursday, the area appeared empty apart from a tour group from China. A suicide bomber with suspected links to the Islamic State blew himself up in the area in January, killing 10 people, including eight German tourists.
Since then, it has been especially hard for Ismael Cakici to turn a profit. He sells robes and fragrant soaps at a shop in the area for the visitors who used to stream into the city’s Turkish baths. “Yesterday, I sold a robe. That was it,” said the 19-year-old, who lives with his older brother in an apartment in a lower-income area of the city. The brothers usually send part of their salaries to their parents, who live in a predominantly Kurdish province in southeastern Turkey. That is becoming harder to do, Cakici said. “My boss didn’t pay me last month. How could he? He doesn’t have any money, either!"
Some positive changes have appeared on the horizon, though.
Hundreds of thousands of Russian tourists could return to Turkey after an apparent rapprochement last week between President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Last year, Putin ordered Russians to stay away from Turkey after it downed a Russian warplane over Turkey’s border with Syria, where the two countries support opposing sides in the conflict.
And there may be hope in the form of Turkey fans like Carrie Lennon, a 43-year-old American on vacation in Istanbul. “Yes, the attacks make you think about your security. But the food! The architecture!” she said. She landed only a few hours after Tuesday’s attack. She traveled from her home town of Milwaukee, where she works at a life insurance company. “If only Americans knew how wonderful this place is!” she said, beaming with enthusiasm. “I’m buying a backgammon set, maybe a carpet!”