After last week's failed coup, Turkey has been in a state of turmoil -- and yesterday, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared a three-month state of emergency as he seeks to find those responsible for the attempt. While much of the clashing between the government and dissenters took place in Ankara, Istanbul was also a site of rioting.
The most populous city in Turkey, Istanbul is one of the most visited destinations in the world. So now, after the coup -- and the suicide bombing at the Istanbul airport in June -- travelers with plans to visit the cultural center of the country are wondering if they should cancel their trips. So we talked to various experts -- from a former CIA agent to an officer at the U.S. Department of State -- to get the scoop on what you need to know about travel to Turkey right now.
1. The U.S. Department of State has issued a travel warning.
After the coup, the U.S. Department of State issued a Travel Warning (a step up from a Travel Alert) advising all U.S. citizens to avoid travel to southeastern Turkey. (Istanbul, however, is in the country's northwestern region.) As Kevin Brosnahan, spokesperson for the Bureau of Consular Affairs at the State Department, explains "The Department issues a Travel Alert to warn U.S. citizens in a country about a short-term threat, which, generally speaking, can include things such as potential civil unrest during elections or a deteriorating security situation. If this threat is deemed to be chronic, we issue a Travel Warning." Therefore, a State Department Official clarifies that the U.S. State Department "suggests U.S. citizens reconsider travel to Turkey at this time."
Referring to the airport bombing and attempted coup, former CIA agent and founder of Spy Escape & Evasion Jason Hanson says, "Both are things to be concerned about, so I wouldn't take anything lightly." But when asked if he would advise travelers to cancel plans to visit Turkey, he states, "I would not. I would advise them to be smart, but this was a weak, failed attempt."
2. The airport is operating, and direct flights between the U.S. and Turkey have resumed.
Shortly after the failed coup, the main Istanbul airport was back up and running, but for three days, U.S. officials banned all flights between the U.S. and Turkey. On July 18, the ban was lifted and major airlines, such as Turkish Air, are currently operating flights between the two countries. This, Hanson points out, is a good sign of the country stabilizing. "Even though airlines want to make money, they're not going to be dumb enough to put people in danger," he says. "Plus, they're very expensive planes."
3. Many cruise lines, however, have rerouted to avoid ports in Turkey. A cruise ship can actually be one of the safest places to be during political unrest.
Shortly after the airport bombing, several cruise lines changed their itineraries in order to avoid previously scheduled stops in Istanbul. Norwegian, Regent, and Oceania have likely gone the furthest, dropping all scheduled calls in Turkey through 2017. Some lines, however, still have plans to visit other areas of Turkey, such as Kusadasi and Cesme. "The number one priority of cruise lines is the safety and well-being of their guests, so decisions of this kind are not made lightly," explains Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor-in-chief at CruiseCritic.com. You can find an updated list of cruise line rescheduling here.
Brown also makes the point that cruise ships are generally safe (or safer) places to be during a time of political unrest. "Cruise ships are unique in the sense that they have the ability to change itineraries and course quite quickly, unlike resorts on land," she says. "In the case of unrest, cruise lines can adjust course immediately, alter itineraries to avoid ports in which they're actively monitoring, and replace them with other nearby ports of call, without the need to cancel entire sailings." For example, Celebrity will operate out of Piraeus, Greece, the port for Athens, instead of Istanbul for upcoming Eastern Mediterranean sailings.
4. Most hotels in Istanbul are operating as usual.
As a State Department Official points out, "Most hotels catering to international tourists would have guidelines for guest safety," so while they are operating as usual, they are following a set of rules to ensure that all guests are safe. Some, such as Shangri-La Bosphorus, are waiving the usual 24-hour cancellation policy for those who feel uncomfortable traveling to the country at this time. Similarly, Carrie Bloom, Vice President of Global Communications at Starwood Hotels & Resorts, says that all Starwood properties in Turkey are waiving cancellation fees for arrivals through today, and that "all Starwood Hotels in Istanbul and Ankara remain on lock-down" in order to guarantee guests' safety.
Hanson advises, "Going overseas is the one place you want to pony-up money for a quality hotel."
5. As with any country, it is important to remain alert when traveling to Turkey, and prepare accordingly before departure.
While Hanson says he would not cancel upcoming plans to Turkey, he makes sure to point out that, "Before I even left the U.S., I would write down all the embassies, I would have copies of my passport. And in the event of a coup, I would make sure I wouldn't follow the herd -- I'd go the other way. I'd get back to the hotel, and I'd do whatever I could to get to the embassy." And the U.S. Department of State concurs that this is a solid plan. "U.S. Embassy and Consulates around the world stand ready to help U.S. citizens in distress abroad," says a State Department Official. "These include personal emergencies, as well as natural disasters (hurricanes, earthquakes, etc.) and crises such as Turkey recently experienced."
Phil Sylvester, a Travel Safety Expert at WordNomads.com, points out, "There was a photograph published 24 hours after the failed coup of a mother holding her child and taking a 'selfie' in front of a tank. She was all smiles and didn’t seem concerned for her safety. Maybe that’s an indication of how quickly things will calm down." He continues, "Then again, thousands of military and police personnel, as well as judges and governors, have been detained or dismissed in the post-coup backlash, which could affect Turkey’s ability to handle future security challenges. But I think it all indicates that it’s wise to wait as long as possible before canceling, just in case the situation improves -- it’d be sad to miss out on a great trip because you acted hastily while emotions and fears were high."
Sylvester also advises investing in traveler's insurance (although only a "Cancel for Any Reason" policy guarantees you can cancel over safety concerns as a result of the coup) and to "be sure to do your homework before hitting your destination. Check out local and social media sources, and get the lay of the land. And even though a provincial capital may be sketchy, it doesn't mean the rest of the country isn't safe."