Turkey has a unique place in global tourism.
It has arguably the greatest range of attractions, from Topkapı Palace in Istanbul to the sybaritic sands of Bodrum.
In fact, Turkey literally has everything; sophisticated cities, beaches and mountains, a great climate along the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts, wonderful people and great food, culture, fantastic arts and crafts.
Turkey has played critical roles in the histories of Christianity, Judaism, Islam and other religions such as Zoroastrianism. It has dozens of cultural influences from the ancient Greeks to the Laz, a mysterious group of people who live in the northeast.
When you think of Roman and Greek ruins, the best ones are actually in Turkey.
Unfortunately, it also now has Recip Tayyip Erdogan, who is – as we post this – pushing Turkey toward one-man rule.
In a bad neighborhood, Turkey has suffered attacks by the so-called Islamic State and Kurdish separatists, as well as a July coup.
During his years first as prime minister, then president, Erdogan has locked up thousands and thousands of Turks … everyone from his generals to journalists to ordinary teachers and administrators who expressed mild criticism of his autocratic state.
As a consequence, Turkey’s tourism sector has collapsed. And we can’t in good conscience recommend you vacation there.
Here’s the rub: Turkey was the perfect affordable destination. When you take it out of the mix, choices for Europe-based expats get a lot less interesting.
Or as a French official asked recently, when was the last time you took your spouse/partner for a romantic weekend in Frankfurt?
So, what are the alternative destinations that are (almost) as beautiful, welcoming and affordable as Turkey?
This is not a rhetorical question. At stake are billions of euros in tourism revenue.
Turkey once ranked 14th or higher in the total value of its tourism sector, according to the World Tourism & Travel Council. At its peak in 2014, Turkey attracted an estimated 42 million tourists and was the sixth most popular tourist destination in the world. If each tourist generates at least 500 euros in spending, that’s 7 billion euros.
Tourism accounted for more than 12 percent of total gross domestic products. But now tourism is down as much as 40 percent, by some estimates.
Mass travel companies such as Thomas Cook are having to divert their package tours to other locations, and Thursday, the London-based company announced countries including Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus and Portugal are reaping some of the fastest growth in bookings for summer 2017 as Turkey fades.
All are seriously viable destinations:
You’re thinking, “Gunug with the all the Dispatches posts about Bulgaria.”
Well, Bulgaria is hot right now for all the right reasons. It’s insanely affordable. It has a lot to experience from Roman ruins to beaches to mountains to museums.
It’s one of the most affordable destinations in Europe, yet Bulgaria – unlike some destinations in the Balkans – is pretty well set up for an expansion in tourism whether you’re talking about skiing, spas or beaches.
So much of what Bulgaria has to offer visitors is overlooked, such as the regions with numerous wine cellars producing top-quality Bulgarian wines.
Wineries in the region around Svilengrad and on the Romanian border to the north, Preslav on the Black Sea hinterland in the east and Sliven on the Balkan foothills are all starting to get noticed for very drinkable wines.
Pluses: Modern cities such as Sofia have really inviting parks and museums. There are also high-end hotels flying the flags of Hilton and Radisson Blu, as well as spas.
Minuses: If you’re comparing Bulgaria to Turkey, it’s seriously apples to oranges. Turkey is a vast country with a land mass almost eight times as large as Bulgaria. That said, Bulgaria was part of the Ottoman empire. Trouble is, it was also part of the Soviet Bloc, and it’s been a long climb out of Communism. Also, English isn’t as widespread here as in other parts of Europe.
Dubrovnik is incredible … and you can’t squeeze another tourist into the old city during August. But the great thing about Croatia is that it’s a large country with a long, long coast and myriad islands, and lots of options on land.
No one – well, no one we know – knows Croatia better than Dispatches contributors Ivana Avramović and Nina Avramović Trninić. As you can tell from their names, they ain’t from Peoria. They summer in Croatia nearly every year. And there are lots of untouristy alternatives to Dubrovnik.
• Hvar, which offers more luxury along with great beaches. The island is, she says, “the Mediterranean as it used to be.”
• The island of Cres has dolphin watching and sand beaches as opposed to the pebble beaches more common in Europe.
• Plitvicka Lakes National Park in the north, with its lakes and waterfalls.
• On the Southern Dalmatian Coast, Orebic and Korcula between Dubrovnik and Hvar, which she says are much cheaper, but every bit as beautiful – as both are more famous destinations.
• On the middle Dalmatian Coast: Drvenik and Tucepi have beautiful beaches and are family friendly; Zaostrog is cheap and great for campers.
• On the North Dalmatian Coast: Primosten “is literally breathtaking, with a quiet sand beach on one side and a wild, stone beach with surfing possibilities on the other side.”
All this is just a start. The interior also has lots of to offer including the historic capital of Zagreb.
Pluses: One of the easiest sun-and-sand destinations to get to, with three airports set up for tourism.
Minuses: We can’t really think of any other than it’s really tough to leave. That, and while Croatia is an EU country, it still uses the Kuna. English isn’t quite as common as in, say, the Netherlands or Sweden.
Through the ages, Greece has been Turkey’s great rival, so it’s sort of ironic that Greece will likely pick up a lot of tourist dollars that would have gone to the other side of the Aegean.
But it still has some of the most beautiful real estate on earth, not to mention the most historic. A gigantic collection of destinations from poster-perfect Santorini to exotic Crete that have little in common, but lots to offer.
Kos is a party island choked with Germans.
Chios is the real Greece that hasn’t changed that much since World War II.
Lesbos has great food and a level of sophistication above, say, Chios. Samos is unspoiled.
My sister Marjorie returns to Corfu for the summer every year. She could go anywhere, so this is quite an endorsement.
This is probably the country most like Turkey whether the Greeks want to admit it or not.
Pluses: Even though Greece is a euro country, prices are crazy low as the migrant crisis has cut into tourism.
Minuses: Our personal experience is, you have to be pretty diligent about checking out the hotels in Greece. We had one of the worst experiences ever in Chios. You’re far better off to go with boutique hotels. Also, we had some crazy experiences with unpleasant Greek customs officials back in the day.
It’s been years since I’ve been, but I still remember my days in Macedonia. Macedonia had just broken away from Yugoslavia and was having a bit of an identity crisis, with the Greeks claiming Alexander the Great copyrighted “Macedonia” back in 350 B.C.
Macedonia ain’t Greece. It’s far more exotic. It’s where Islam bumps up against Greek Orthodox Christianity, and where a South Slav language is spoken along with Albanian and Turkish.
In the last few years, Macedonia has had a series of well-done tourism campaigns, and they get my attention because Macedonia really is worth a trip IMHO. Destinations include Lake Ohrid, mountains, fortresses, isolated monasteries and the crazy city of Skopje where a fellow can get into a lot of trouble. (I’ll just leave it at that.)
Skopje is an interesting little city with cafes and restaurants, a great Turkish bazaar and a lot of cool shops selling Greek Orthodox icons. And along with Bulgaria, this is the bargain basement of European tourism.
But Macedonia is not, and never will be, a package tour destination. It’s really for the adventurous, outdoors types and for people who want to add a rather obscure country to their travels.
Pluses: Really inexpensive and fairly easy to get to from most of Europe
Minuses: Still use the Macedonia Denar, not the euro. The Bulgarian and Albanian mobs control a lot of what goes on in Macedonia, especially the sex trade. Best to stay out of some of the more notorious clubs. Also, the ultra-nationalist government of Nikola Gruevski is increasingly under pressure. Welcome to the Balkans.
We just featured Madeira in a post by expat Beth Hoke, and what she wrote really resonated with us.
Yes, it’s a cruise-ship destination. But it’s relatively isolated out in the Atlantic off the coast of Morocco.
Two-thirds of Madeira, which is technically Portugal, is UNESCO-protected laurel forest. So there’s less development than on party islands such as Ibiza.
Yes, this is a sun-and-fun destination. The difference between just another place to sit by the sea and a real adventure is all the cultural experiences a great destination offers along with trekking and sailing.
There’s plenty to do and buy for tourists. But this is also a place for artists (including Winston Churchill in the day) and adventurers.
Madeira is one of those places you could go on a summer vacay, then never leave.
Pluses: Part of Portugal, so the gourmet experience awaits including fine wines and ports. Also, the hotel offerings can be posh including the Belmond Reid’s Palace, a century-old historic hotel frequented by famous guests Winston Churchill, George Bernard Shaw, Roger Moore, Gregory Peck, and Rainer Maria Rilke.
Minuses: You MUST book early for Christmas and New Year’s Eve as the sun-seeking crowds pour in.
This is Europe, yet it’s not Europe. The Maltese language is – get this – Afro-Asiatic. A semitic offshoot of Arabic, it also has Italian and English influences, reflective of its location at the crossroads of history and culture.
The architecture is unlike any other place in Europe, which is why “Game of Thrones” shoots on location in Malta. Prehistoric Maltese Temple structures way predate the Pyramids of Egypt.
Maltese Baroque architecture is basically a variation on architecture from Spain and Italy, but with its own local twist.
In short, Malta looks like no other place.
Though in a way, it’s Turkey lite. Three hundred days of sun. Sea views. Ancient cities. Great food at alfresco restaurants. But more expensive, but also a bit glossier.
Unlike other beach destinations in Europe, Malta also offers diving in crystal clear seas.
Minuses: Malta’s great location down south of Sicily in the Med, which gives it great weather, is also its curse in that it’s a bit difficult to reach. It’s about a three-hour flight from northern Europe including London, Amsterdam and Berlin. That doesn’t stop it from being a top sun-and-sea destination for Brits.
And remember, the premise is, “Where can you go that – like Turkey – is fabulous and affordable?”
Nina recommends Montenegro, which translates to “Black Mountain.” And this is a unique destination because Montenegro is the best place to experience Albania. What do we mean?
Well, Montenegro enjoys one of Europe’s most interesting locations … south of Croatia, but north of Albania.
Albania … sheesh, where to start. It has one of the most amazing coasts in the world. BUT, you don’t want to go there because it’s just not ready for tourism. And it’s not safe. Like, at all.
I had a Kosovar Albanian friend who went to Albania fishing and got robbed 10 minutes after he crossed the border.
One of the newest nations in the world (Montenegrans voted themselves out of Serbia in 2006), Montenegro is ready for the spotlight, though at the moment is on few travelers’ radars. And that’s a shame because it has a lot to offer including:
• Boka Bay, a great place to base your visit. It’s referred to as the southern-most fjord in Europe because it’s a super-deep river canyon that empties into the Adriatic. Boka Bay apparently has its own micro-climes.
• wilderness, with half the country still covered in forests. Montenegro has the greatest bio-diversity in all of Europe. The human population is only about 700,000.
• some of the highest, most rugged mountains in Europe, averaging more than 2,100 meters (7,000 feet.)
Montenegro has almost too much to list. It’s like if you took Slovenia and all its scenery and plopped it down in southern Balkans, then added brick and stucco buildings with those red clay roofing tiles so popular in the Adriatic.
It’s more than just a sun-and-fun destination. Montenegro has high mountain ranges, and the Tara River canyon is the deepest and longest in Europe.
Pluses: A euro country that’s still undiscovered. Still affordable. And still not overrun with tourists. (Well, Russians, yes, but Europeans no.) Better hurry ….
Minuses: This is still the Balkans, not Switzerland. It can get a bit dicey, and coups are still a thing. Also, this isn’t Malta, so the post-Soviet architecture, along with new buildings, can be underwhelming. And those Russian tourists ….
Yes, Turkey wrested control of the north side of this Mediterranean island back in 1973, with the Republic of Cyprus independent, but supported by Greece. This year, talks could reunify the island, which would mean a dramatic change in its tourism fortunes.
Not that it really needs it, eh?
Cyprus has always been an English outpost and the Daily Mail Online just dubbed it the least expensive destination for Brits, with a week’s holiday in Paphos for four costing 1,130 pounds. I recommend the north side simply because it’s far less developed and far more authentic than the mass-tourism south.
When I visited back in the day, I heard as much English as Turkish. I watched in awe at restaurants as families dined together, with kids effortlessly switching back and forth between the two languages.
I came to Cyprus as a romantic under the spell of Lawrence Durrell’s classic “Bitter Lemons,” about Greeks and Turks living in the odd little village of Bellapais.
I was not disappointed.
The Abbey and even the Tree of Idleness Durrell memorialized are still there, and as a matter of fact, there are several nice boutique hotels and B&Bs.
Northern Cyprus has all the seascapes and mountain vistas of nearby Turkey, and even better beaches. Of the two major cities – Gazimağusa (Famagusta) and Girne (Kyrenia) – I recommend Girne simply because it’s not been overrun with 20-story concrete hotels.
Pluses: A big island with lots of different experiences including casinos.
Minuses: Every town has two names … a Turkish name, and a Greek name. Which I could never keep straight. Girne is the Turkish name for the port, and Kyrenia is the Greek name for the place, for example.
There is no destination anywhere on the planet hotter than Portugal.
Every travel website, magazine and blogger is singing its praises and recommending you go now!
Porto was just selected as the No. 1 destination by European Best Destinations 2017, the Brussels-based European organization charged with promoting culture and tourism in Europe. This is the third time in five years!
This isn’t just a random award. EBD polls tourists from all over the world.
Here’s what they said about Porto:
Never has the choice of the winning city been so unanimous among travellers from all other the world. It is with the votes of worldwide travellers from 174 countries that Porto wins this European title again for the third time (2012, 2014, 2017). Travellers from the USA, the United Kingdom, France, Denmark, South-Africa, South Korea, Ireland and Canada, among others,… voted Porto in the first place in this competition. Porto is exceptional in more ways than one and the “Cidade Invicta” (unvanquished city) is history, is architecture, culture, gastronomy, trade, encounters and discoveries, will seduce you.
This is just one town!
Lisbon is a favorite destination, yes. And much of Portugal has been overrun with package tourism from the United Kingdom. But, as our Jackie Harding wrote recently, you don’t have to go far to escape the madness and find the authentic Portugal.
Pluses: A euro country that’s affordable and welcoming.
Minuses: Is Portugal suddenly too trendy? Every place we’ve ever loved from Taos, New Mexico to Kalkan, Turkey has been “discovered” by mass tourism, and have never been the same.
This tiny country in south-central Europe already gets 4 million foreign tourists, twice its total population. We’ve never been, but we only hear good things about both its cities such as Ljubljana and its countryside.
Lake Bled has everything from its own castle to serious trekking. Slovenia’s wild rivers including the Soča River offer white-water opportunities. The Soča Valley is but one of a dozen alpine valleys, many of which are part of national parks.
There are multiple must-visit castles including Ljubljana Castle.
Slovenia’s currency is the euro, which cuts both ways. No conversion worries, but prices are higher than, say, Bulgaria.
Note to self: Make Slovenia your new favorite.
Pluses: It’s fairly undiscovered. Lonely Planet calls it “an unexpected revelation” of mountain valleys and unspoiled castles and Medieval cities. A great destination for more sophisticated, well-heeled travelers. A wide range of accommodations from 5-star hotels in Ljubljana to tourist farms and “glamping.”
Minuses. Location. No, the location is great. Unfortunately, it’s next to Trieste, Venice and the Croatian coast, so visitors tend to wander off. It could be because of the official tourism slogan, “I feel Slovenia.” What does that even mean?