According to the Culture and Tourism Provincial Directorate, the site of Ancient Ephesus welcomed nearly 2 million visitors in 2013. That’s around two thirds of the total visitor population to archaeological and heritage sites in the whole İzmir region: around the same number of people who visit the Athenian Acropolis or Pomepii per annum, and almost three times as many as those who see the Globe in a year. But this summer has been a bit different. The site has failed to attract its usual coach-loads of tourists in search of an archaeological or biblical adventure, and the Curetes Way – so often crammed full of selfie sticks and backpacks – is rather hauntingly empty.
It’s the final few days of summer, the holiday season is winding down, and we’re the other side of Kurban Bayram – by this stage one would imagine things to be cooling off at sites like Ephesus. However, tourism in Turkey never really hotted up to start with this year. The failed military coup of 15th July may have only been centred around two major Turkish cities, but the rest of the country has really felt the effect. At one level, the forced reorganisation of government and educational personnel has been brought to us in horrific images. Established academics are still prevented from leaving their home institution for participation in international field projects and conferences. But for another stratum of society – the hotel owners, the restaurant managers, the tour guides – Turkey is also dealing with the effects of a changed nation. A nation which no one wants to visit.
In the few days following the Turkish political upheavals, travel agents received an unprecedented number of cancellation requests from individuals and families. Internet message boards became flooded by questions on whether or not it was safe to travel abroad and what refund options were available. Add in a smattering of ISIS fear, the Daily Mail’s annual go-abroad-this-summer-and-you-will-certainly-die scaremonger article, and all of a sudden you’ve got the perfect recipe for a country that no one wants to visit any more. It’s hard to ignore that we live in turbulent times, and the saddening attacks closer to home in France and Germany this summer are a reminder of this. But the reality of the situation for travellers across most parts of Turkey looks nothing like what the media will tell you. The terror threat level for most regions of Turkey falls far below that currently issued in France.
This summer and last I have been involved with Project Panormos, an international archaeological field project which investigates the landscape of the Milesian Peninsula in the Aydın province of the Aegean coast of Turkey. I have really enjoyed getting to know the rich cultural history of the area, and the chance to explore the spirited coasts and mountains around Miletus. The nearest-and-dearest weren’t that happy about my plans for the summer – given all that is currently happening in Turkey at the moment – but there isn’t really all that much reason to panic about concerning travel in this region. For the foreign tourist visiting the western coast resort areas, perhaps the greatest danger which persists is to forget the factor 50, and to come back a hideously painful shade of lobster. The FCO advises of no good reason to avoid the Aegean coast, and the project base in Didim is about as far from the Syrian border as Cambridge is from Poland. One wouldn’t think twice about travelling to Rhodes, Samos, or Chios – the islands may be only a stone’s throw away from the Aegean coast, but an ideological barrier stands in the way like an invisible wall.
I’m not advocating stupidity by any means. Of course, measure the risks, but don’t be put off from exploring for yourself the fascinating history of Didyma, Ephesus, Miletus, Klazomenai, Priene…or from dipping a toe into the odd beach resort or two. Turkey hasn’t all of a sudden become a police-state, and the authorities’ attitude towards foreigners is still largely the same as it has always been. The Aegean coast in particular is not a wealthy region, and it relies heavily on revenue generated from foreign tourists. The best thing that we can do for local people in this time of unrest for their country is to stand with them in the face of adversity. By travelling and contributing to small regional economies, we can provide a great service to those whose trade has suffered greatly this summer.
İyi yolculuklar – happy travels!