On a sunny winter day, an Islamic call to prayer breaks the afternoon silence between Istanbul’s Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia.
These centuries-old religious sites attract millions of tourists to the country every year. In fact, Turkey was the sixth most popular global destination in 2019, according to the World Trade Organization.
Visitors nosedived as the COVID-19 pandemic brought the global tourism industry to its knees the following year. But with rising vaccination rates in developed countries and easing travel restrictions, a favorable exchange rate is bringing tourists back to Turkey.
The lira lost almost half of its value last year. This is largely because Turkey’s central bank and policymakers have chosen to go against mainstream economic theory. Instead of using higher interest rates to deal with persistently rising prices, they instead reduced borrowing costs. This led to official annual inflation of 36% and an economic crisis that strained household budgets.
Life is hard for those who live in the countryside. But for those who go there, it’s a different story.
As one Russian couple told me, “It’s really cheap here. We can enter any restaurant we want. And we feel really super rich.
According to the national official statistics agency, the number of foreign visitors jumped 97.5% last year compared to 2020. Although this is a sign of recovery, tourism spending remains around a third below the pre-pandemic levels.
The weaker lira is felt by businesses operating in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. The famous market was built in the 15th century and is a major draw for foreign visitors looking for everything from Turkish rugs and luminaries to souvenir t-shirts, tchotchkes or small decorative items.
Before the pandemic, the Grand Bazaar’s intricately designed vaulted passageways accommodated 150,000 people every day.
Many traders in the Grand Bazaar explained that if business rebounds, they try not to pass on their higher operating costs – due to the depreciation of the lira – to consumers.
Some can avoid it and some can’t. A fruit and nut seller explained that he noticed discrepancies in the items people buy, depending on where they live. Turkish customers, he said, can only afford dried mangoes covered in sugar; it is more than 65% cheaper than plain dried mangoes bought by tourists.
The pandemic has not only changed the frequency of travel, but also the way they plan their trips.
I went to meet Sebnem Altin, a local tour guide at Grand Circle Travel, for a cup of coffee. She worries that some of the temporary accommodations she and other businesses have made during the pandemic will become permanent waits for travelers.
“People might just cancel their tours at the last minute and agencies are quite flexible with that, which is something new,” Altin said. “For this reason, even if we have reservations and everything looks really beautifully rosy for the coming year, we can never be sure that they will be realised. Everything has become much more fragile than before and I am not not confident, I must say.
Still, bookings are up. Altin hopes the eased travel conditions and favorable exchange rate will attract even more visitors hoping for a slice of Turkish delight.