(Editor’s note: This post was originally published in December. But with this weekend’s attack in Ankara, we’re reposting it because we believe it’s important that expats not cross Turkey off their list of must-visit countries.)
Sometimes, great countries go bad.
Though I’ve always wanted to visit Budapest, I’m not sure I’d take my family to Hungary right now because we’re ethnic Jews, and antisemitism is back in fashion there. Yemen, one of my favorite destinations, is a now a war zone.
In a similar vein, Turkey is my spiritual home. It is indisputably the greatest travel destination in the world, from the glitz and glitter of Istanbul to posh resorts in Bodrum and Golcuk to the surreal movie-set monuments atop Mount Nemrut. Our girls grew up there. We love every inch of the country. And all of its attractions are soooo close to Europe.
But under authoritarian President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the Islamists have pushed aside many democratic safeguards Turkey’s secular founder Ataturk worked so hard to erect. Now, Erdoğan has made it a crime to insult the president, and sent respected journalists to prison. (Think of how many Republicans and Fox commentators would be in jail if President Obama had this in his tool kit!)
Turkey has lots of other problems at the moment, not the least of which are the Syrian civil war on its doorstep and its deteriorating relationship with Vladimir Putin.
Now, the question for us Europe-based expats is, “Go, or no-go?”
On one hand, there’s no place like it. On the other, does tourism support Tayyip Erdoğan’s goals? I have mixed emotions. I don’t think we should punish people in the tourism sector with a boycott. But it seems like we’re letting the Islamic AK Party get away with repression if we go. My solution was to call, email or Facebook message all my Turkey-born friends, all of whom staunchly oppose Erdoğan.
What I got back was unanimous, and I have to say, a little surprising. Nur, the Turkish person I’ve know the longest, says, “go.” Emphatically, which is Nur’s style. My friend Haldun, who’s a subtle, deep thinker, says, “go,” but with caveats. Inci Palmer, the person I know who lives life to the fullest says, “Go!” Citizen of the world Melahat Ozsimsek says, “Go!”
“Look, these nationalist idiots … they’re the problem,” Nur said. “They’re the problem in every country. Tourism doesn’t help them.” The average Turkish person working in the tourist sector actually loves tourists … and they need the income Europeans provide, Nur said.
Moreover, the biggest supporters of Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party, or AK in Turkish, are in the conservative provincial towns such as Kayseri and Bursa. “Tourists don’t go there,” she said. “They go to Izmir and the resort areas, where everyone is liberal.” Her recommendation for the moment: Russians probably should keep a low profile. Everyone else should go, and Nur was planning a trip later this spring.
Melahat pointed out the Aegean and Mediterranean coastal cities, where Turkey’s main tourism centers are, have never supported Erdoğan, voting against him in every election since he came to power in 2002. “He couldn’t get the west and the south coasts, yet he has the rest of Turkey. It’s sad. It’s the only part of Turkey against him, yet they (lose) because almost all their income is from tourism,” she said.
“We have saying in Turkish: ‘Kurunun yanında yaş da yanar.’ Which is, ‘The wet ones burn with the dry ones.'” In other words, the good ones gets wasted with bad.”
“Well, I do share the same opinion about not punishing ordinary people because of an authoritarian leader ….,” says Haldun. Erdoğan rules Turkey through oppression, jailing journalists when they reveal his links to terrorists and his constant abuses of power “while favoring his family members in every possible way.”
But a boycott only strengths his hand, Haldun added. Erdoğan and the Islamists use boycotts and international sanctions to appeal to nationalist sentiment that says outsiders are conspiring to keep Turkey from becoming a strong country. “Believe it or not, more than half of the voters believe his words.”
EU officials never spoke up as Erdoğan jailed journalists such as Can Dundar, who has doggedly investigated political scandals. EU officials don’t want any refugees and bribes Turkey with 3 billion euros to turn Turkey “into a huge camp for fleeing refugees,” Haldun said. “Sooner or later instability in the region will be felt more intensely.”
“This is easy for me,” says Inci Palmer. “No matter what we do, Erdoğan and his party are the winners. They filled up their pockets with taxpayers’ money.” In the United States’ intervention in Syria, negotiations were based on money, Inci said. “So, boycotting will not affect (AK).” Travel to Turkey is now cheaper since the Paris terror attacks last November, the increasing tensions with Russia, she noted.
“I’d go because we as Turks need to support our nation by inviting people.”
Co-CEO of Dispatches Europe. A former military reporter, I'm a serial expat who has lived in France, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.