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Is it Safe to Travel to Turkey? Travel Experts Weigh In

By Kit KieferDecember 22, 2020

Photo by Abdullah Öğük on Unsplash

Is it safe to travel to Turkey? It’s certainly easy to travel safely in Turkey because of the friendliness of the people, but the Turkish government’s hardline approach and the instability of the region can make Turkey a less-than-safe destination for some travelers.

In general, if you’re a normal tourist, go to normal tourist places and do normal tourist things, Turkey’s a very safe destination. It’s when you go outside the lines that trouble starts.

“For the many decades that I was traveling in Turkey, it was surprisingly safe,” says Tom Brosnahan, author of 20 guidebooks on travel to Turkey as well as the Turkey Travel Planner website.

“In general, it’s not a dangerous place, though any smart traveler will keep eyes and ears open, and do smart things like guarding valuables and staying away from any political events.”

Photo by Oziel Gómez on Unsplash

Changes In Turkish Travel

At least among Americans, travel to Turkey has been on a roller coaster over the last decade.

In 2015, almost 800,000 Americans visited Turkey. Two years later, after a series of spats between the U.S. and Turkish governments, that number was down to 329,000. It had climbed back up to 578,000 and was probably set to surpass that figure when the COVID pandemic struck.

Now, Turkey will be fortunate to see 100,000 American visitors in 2020.

In response, Turkey has looked elsewhere for tourists.

“The disputes between the Turkish government and European and the U.S. government substantially reduced the number of European and U.S. travelers going to Turkey,” according to Brosnahan. “Now the preponderance of visitors come from the Gulf, and Asian Islamic and non-Islamic countries, and Russia.”

Turkey is trying hard to revive its tourism sector, according to Bresnahan, but it’s currently an uphill struggle. 

“It’s such an important revenue source,” he says, “and the Turkish economy has some serious problems, making the return of tourism even more urgent.”

Photo by Meg Jerrard on Unsplash

General Safety Levels In Turkey

Since the UL Safety Index has been discontinued, the three big measurements of travel safety are the U.S. State Department’s safety rating of the country for potential travelers, Vision of Humanity ‘s Global Peace Index, and the traveler safety ratings from Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection.

American travelers rated Turkey 51st out of 56 countries in the BHTP’s 2020 safest-destination rankings, down two spots from its 2019 ranking.

While the State Department is not recommending that anyone travel anywhere right now, it gives the country a rating of two – exercise increased caution – because of “terrorism and arbitrary detentions.”

The State Department goes on to recommend that if you decide to travel to Turkey, you should:

Travel Safety Tips For Turkey

While the State Department is somewhat cool on travel to Turkey, the on-the-ground view is considerably less threatening.

With that in mind, let’s look at the safety picture in Turkey on a category-by-category basis.

Terrorism

“No terrorist attack has happened in the last three years, so that makes Turkey a safer destination,” says Süha Erdöz, owner of the Esbelli Evi hotel in Ürgüp, Cappadocia.

Erdöz says that while the terrorist attacks of 2016 may have scared off many would-be visitors, “Turkey has seen tourism numbers rise for the last couple of years – indicating that tourists overwhelmingly feel they will be safe in Turkey. 

“The government has also increased security in areas considered a potential target for attack,” he adds.

On the flip side, The State Department advises tourists to stay away from Turkey’s borders with Syria and Iraq, saying there is a “continued threat of attacks by terrorist groups, armed conflict, and civil unrest.

“Terrorist attacks, including suicide bombings, ambushes, car bomb detonations, and improvised explosive devices, as well as shootings, and illegal roadblocks leading to violence have occurred in these areas,” the State Department concludes.

The State Department also advises against travel to other areas in eastern and southeastern Turkey because of continuing ethnic violence and the possibility of terrorist attacks.

Photo by Despina Galani on Unsplash

Political Unrest

Turkey is a tightly controlled largely Muslim country. Saying bad things about the government is a sure way to get arrested in Turkey ­– and you don’t want to get arrested in Turkey.

That advice also extends to spy-type things like taking pictures of military bases or equipment.

There are ethnic tensions in the country as well, particularly in the south, where the Turkish government continues to face resistance from the ethnic Kurds who populate the region.

In addition, some of Turkey’s neighbors are undergoing civil strife of their own, most notably Syria and Iraq.

Infectious Diseases

Well, there is COVID-19.

Like the rest of southern Europe, Turkey has had its battles with the virus, and its times of harsh lockdowns and closed borders, but the good news is that international flights have resumed, mostly into Europe. Flights to the United States from Turkey resumed June 19.

Outside of COVID-19, the country is largely immune from major infectious diseases – though mosquito repellent is advised for areas near water, as mosquito-borne diseases are not unheard of in the country, and the varmints can be ruthless in coastal areas.

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Photo by Ethan Jameson on Unsplash

Personal Safety

If you steer clear of politics and wear mosquito repellent, the big things to watch out for in Turkey are the same things you have to watch for in practically any destination on earth: pickpockets and scams.

To deal with the former, consider investing in a money belt, money-holding infinity scarf, or pickpocket-proof clothing from Clothing Arts.

To deal with the latter, keep your wits about you. Don’t leave your drink unattended. Don’t fall for the scam where your new “friend” suggests you go for a drink.

Because Turkish can be a daunting language to speak and you can’t always be sure if there will be an English speaker around, it’s a good idea to carry a card bearing the address of your lodgings, to show to someone if you get lost.

Drugs And Alcohol

While Turkey is a Muslim country, it doesn’t take bans on alcohol to the extreme. You’re not committing an offense by drinking in a bar, but drinking out on the streets or in a public park may run you afoul of local regulations.

Also, all the tropes you may have heard about drugs and Turkish prisons are largely true. Don’t do drugs in Turkey, don’t bring drugs into Turkey, and don’t try to buy drugs in Turkey.

Religious Considerations

Dress modestly in general, and cover your legs and shoulders when entering a mosque.

Also be respectful of religious holidays like Ramadan – don’t make a big show of eating during a day when everyone else is fasting.

Photo by Maria Teneva on Unsplash

Food Safety

Street food in Turkey is delicious – but so is non-street food! Turkey is basically a gourmand’s paradise, mixing the best of the west and east in a cuisine that is wholly Turkish and totally wonderful.

Eat your heart out in Turkey – but take it easy the first day or two. Ease your stomach into new foods and spices.

While street food in Turkey is generally safe, try to frequent popular stalls and stands, and avoid meat that’s been sitting out in the hot sun for hours.

Also, avoid tap water in most of Turkey. Bring a water bottle, fill it from certified safe sources, or buy bottled water or other beverages.

Notes On The Cities

The combination of auto and bus exhaust and tobacco smoke can irritate lungs and sinuses of travelers to Turkey’s major cities. People with asthma and other respiratory disorders should be careful.

Also, watch streets and sidewalks in the cities. Sidewalks may be uneven, missing, or may suddenly disappear.

Some of the same applies to Turkish roads. That, combined with the general aggressiveness of Turkish drivers, may convince you to eschew driving in favor of mass transit.

Photo by Fatih on Unsplash

Transportation

Turkey offers a plethora of ways to get around, most of them quite safe – though Erdöz recommends avoiding mass transit until after the threat of the pandemic has passed.

Motor Vehicles

Taxis and Ubers are generally safe, though there’s the occasional driving-around-in-circles fare scam.

Dolmuses are like the extended vans that take you from the airport to your parking lot – only they go between cities. They’re cramped and not always clean, but they’re generally safe.

Regular buses also travel between cities, but vary in quality and promptness. Do your research and you could be rewarded with an air-conditioned coach with cushy seats and seat-back TVs.

Trains and Metros

The larger cities – Ankara, Bursa, Istanbul, and Izmir – have metros. Watch for pickpockets, but otherwise metros are a safe way of getting around these sprawling cities.

There are all sorts of intercity trains in Turkey, from slower trains that stop at every hamlet to high-speed trains that only stop once or twice on their way across the country.

Like the best European trains, Turkish trains run on time and are fairly clean and safe. Better yet, the Eurail Global Pass and the Eurail Select Pass are valid on all trains operated by the Turkish Republic State Railways.

The face of Turkish tourism is changing. Several years ago it was a hot destination for Americans and cruise ships. Now the cruise ships have largely vanished and the country is popular with Russians and visitors from the Middle East.

If you choose to be one of the American tourists who zigs when the others zag, you could be rewarded with the vacation of a lifetime – with great food, amazing sights, and friendly people.

Just remember to stay on the good side of the government.



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Kit Kiefer
Kit Kiefer

Kit Kiefer is a former travel writer for The New York Times and has more than 30 years of freelance experience writing about domestic and international travel. He blogs and produces content for Winbound, a content marketing firm.

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Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection (BHTP) is a registered trademark and a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway Specialty Insurance Company (BHSI), a leader in specialized casualty and liability insurance.  The information contained herein has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable.  BHTP disclaims all warranties as to the accuracy, completeness or adequacy of such information.  The opinions expressed herein are subject to change without notice.

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