In Depth

How safe is Turkey to visit in 2020?

Foreign Office warns British tourists to avoid festivals amid US-Iran crisis fears

The heightening of tensions across the Middle East means that British tourists in Turkey may face an increased risk of terror attacks, the UK government has warned.

The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has advised travellers in Turkey to stay away from festivals and to “remain vigilant”, amid fears that Westerners may be targeted following the US assassination of neighbouring Iran’s General Qasem Soleimani earlier this month.

The FCO has “warned those in Turkey not to travel to destinations near the country’s border with Syria and Iraq, such as the ancient city of Kilis - which is popular with independent travellers - and a number of regions further inland, including the provinces of Diyarbakir and Tunceli”, according to The Telegraph.

Turkey’s tourism industry has been rebounding following a slump caused by widespread political turmoil. Latest figures show that almost 43 million foreign visitors flocked to the country’s shores in the first 11 months of 2019, with Britons accounting for about 2.3 million visits each year, Turkish newspaper Daily Sabah reports.

But following the recent military developments in the Middle East, is Turkey a safe holiday destination?

Overall

In late 2019, Turkey launched a major offensive against Kurdish-held positions in northern Syria, prompting the FCO to reinstate a number of severe warnings against all travel to certain parts of the country. However, most regions retained a green label, indicating safety.

The US Department of State (DOS) also rates most of Turkey as “Level 2”, the second-least severe of four travel warning categories. But like the FCO, the US has put regions near the Syrian border under a Level 4 warning - indicating that tourists should avoid the areas completely.

Meanwhile, the UK department says that additional security measures may apply on flights from Turkey to Britain, even from regions considered safe. The office advises Britons to “cooperate fully with security officials”. 

Passengers have also reported being taken aside for private interviews by UK police and border forces before flying out to Turkey, with questions about the reasons for their stay, so it is worthwhile having that information at hand.

This advice applies when travelling by road in Turkey too, where there is currently a “larger than usual number of police checkpoints on main roads”, the department says. Tourists are also warned not to attempt to take photos or videos of any sensitive military facilities.

In addition, although homosexuality is legal in Turkey, the FCO says many parts of Turkey are socially conservative and public displays of affection may lead to unwelcome attention. Tourists are also likely to face arrest if they insult the Turkish nation or deface the national flag or currency, offences that come with prison sentences of between six months and three years.

Ankara and Istanbul

The FCO has advised that Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city, and Ankara, its capital, are mostly safe.

However, it warns that as in other major cities, precautions should be taken to avoid the chances of being caught up in civil unrest or a terrorist attack.

The FCO says that “most terrorist attacks have taken place in Ankara and Istanbul”, but adds that “attacks are most likely to target the Turkish state, civilians and demonstrations” rather than tourist hotspots.

“Nevertheless, it’s likely that some attacks will also target western interests and tourists from western countries, particularly in the major cities,” the department adds.

The DOS says that although the risk to tourists is generally low, foreigners should still “stay alert in locations frequented by Westerners”.

Visitors to the major tourist areas of Istanbul should also be aware of the risks of street robbery and pick-pocketing, which are common in the region.

Western Turkey and the Riviera

The Turkish Riviera, in the west of the country, is a stretch of coastline boasting some of the finest beaches in Europe and is the most commonly visited region of Turkey by tourists.

The Daily Telegraph reports that “the majority of attacks have been in cities, away from the coastal areas popular with tourists”.

The FCO says coastal resorts, where the majority of British tourists go, remain safe and “do not appear to be significantly affected” by terrorism. The resort city of Marmaris was briefly given a travel warning by the FCO at the time of 2016’s failed coup d'etat but has since been lifted, the Telegraph adds.

Terrorism aside, the region is also the target of burglaries and other similar crimes, the FCO says. According to the department, passports and other valuables have been stolen from rented villas “even when they have been kept in the villa safe”. This is a “particular problem in Didim, Kas, Kalkan and the Fethiye/Hisaronu/Ovacik areas”, all of which are situated on the Riviera, it says.

Central Turkey

Despite its remoteness and weaker infrastructure, central Turkey had seen a rise in tourism in the years leading up to 2016. Most visitors head to the ancient region of Cappadocia, which has become well known for its unusual rock formations and cave hotels.

Central Turkey has also been given a green light by the FCO, which has no warnings in place for the region.

Lonely Planet says that “even compared to many other popular traveller destinations across the world, Cappadocia remains an incredibly safe place”, including for solo female travellers.

Eastern Turkey

Eastern Turkey, dominated by ethnic Kurds, remains the least politically stable region of the country and has been rendered effectively off-limits by Turkey’s military operations.

Prior to the launch of the assault, the FCO said: “Turkey has announced that its military forces intend to enter northeastern Syria imminently. This could lead to heightened tensions in border regions. If you’re in provinces bordering Syria, you should remain vigilant and keep up to date with developments via local media and this travel advice.”

Eastern Turkey has not been considered safe for visitors for decades. The FCO has long warned against all but essential travel to the provinces of Sirnak, Mardin, Sanliurfa, Gaziantep, Kilis, Hatay, Siirt, Tunceli and Hakkari, and against all travel to within six miles of the borders with Syria and Iraq, as well as to the city of Diyarbakir.

Since 1978, the provinces bordering Syria and Iraq have been the site of numerous battles between Kurdish groups and Turkish security forces that have left at least 50,000 people dead, including civilians.

“Large-scale terrorist attacks including suicide bombings, ambushes, car bomb detonations, improvised explosive devices, as well as kidnappings for ransom, shootings, roadblocks, and violent demonstrations have occurred in these areas,” the DOS says.

In addition, Mount Ararat, a major tourist destination on the border with Armenia and a holy site for many Armenians, has also been closed to all visitors - including locals - by the Turkish government.  

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