“Turkey Unlimited. Now available without Turks,” reads a mock tourism advert on social media, poking fun at the sight of foreign tourists roaming quiet streets while most Turks are confined to home by a coronavirus lockdown.
The government has exempted foreign holidaymakers from the 2-1/2-week long lockdown in an effort to revitalise tourism, a critical sector of the Turkish economy. Those arriving in Turkey must show proof of negative COVID-19 tests.
But Turks on social media have voiced indignation at images of tourists partying on the country’s Mediterranean coast or locals slapped with fines for being outdoors while foreign visitors can wander around as they wish.
“This is a great time for the tourists now, because Turks can’t go out,” said tourist guide Kadir, 34 as he watched for customers outside Istanbul’s 15th-century Topkapi Palace. He brushed aside local frustrations about the lockdown.
“This is the way it has to be. The tourists have made payments and reservations. Tourism is important for Turkey and the wheels of the economy have to keep turning.”
Tourism revenues plunged by two-thirds to $12 billion last year as the pandemic hit an industry which accounts usually for up to 12% of the economy. Turkey hopes the current restrictions on movement will rescue this season.
But there are relatively few opportunities for Kadir, who said just 1,000 people were currently visiting the Ottoman palace each day, compared with a usual number of about 15,000.
Current visitors are mainly from Ukraine, Russia and Latin America, as well as British Pakistanis on their way back from trips to Pakistan, he said.
Outside the 17th-century Blue Mosque in the nearby Sultanahmet Square, tourists had mixed feelings about holidaying as Turkey battled to curb a COVID-19 wave which has put it fourth globally in the number of daily cases.
“The fact is, tourists spend money. All these places depend on tourists. If they weren’t here, everything would shut down,” said Faisal Cheema, 46, a restaurateur from Manchester, England, visiting for 10 days on his return from a visit to Pakistan.
“But it’s not good for tourists either. In COVID situations you should ban tourists too. If you lock down, you have to lock down proper,” he said at a souvenir shop in Sultanahmet.
Elsewhere in the usually bustling mega-city of 15 million, police set up checkpoints on main streets to check that those travelling in vehicles have permission to be out.
Locals are still allowed to carry out essential shopping in local grocery stores and millions of people involved in industrial production and key sectors have permission to go to work, but thousands have been fined for violating the lockdown.
Frustration at the restrictions was fuelled when a video circulated on social media this week showing a large crowd of foreign tourists partying at a hotel in the Mediterranean tourist hub of Antalya.
The incident was widely covered in Turkish media, prompting the Antalya governor to issue a statement saying the hotel’s “safe tourism” certificate had been cancelled and its operations halted for the duration of the pandemic.
The Tourism Ministry launched the certificate scheme last to reassure potential visitors to the country. (Reuters)