From its dreamy Mediterranean coastline to Istanbul's thrilling cuisine and nightlife, Turkey basks in the spotlight as one of the hottest travel destinations for 2013. But in recent days, images of the political protests in Istanbul – and volatile clashes with riot police – have been splashed across the international press. As a result, hotel booking engines are reporting a sharp decrease in searches for Turkey. Could this spell a golden opportunity to visit – with major discounts? Or is it unsafe?
What's the backstory?
The protests began as a peaceful demonstration against the government's plan to turn Gezi Park in Taksim Square, one of the last remaining green spaces in Istanbul's city center, into a shopping mall designed like an Ottoman-era barracks. Once the police started using tear gas and water cannons to dispel the camped-out crowds, it turned violent, with more and more dissenters taking a stance against Prime Minister Erdogan's increasingly authoritarian government. The clashes continue, and there have also been some demonstrations in the Turkish capital of Ankara, making many visitors wary about their existing travel plans.
What's the reality on the ground?
I checked in with Earl Starkey, a travel industry veteran whose award-winning company Sophisticated-Travel provides customized itineraries for clients in Turkey. "Outside of the protest areas everything is fine here in Istanbul. Life is normal," he says. "We have lots of clients in Turkey right now and everyone seems happy. We did have to make a few adjustments – moving clients away from hotels near Taksim, but as long as you aren't in the square, everything is good. The tourist areas are not affected at all."
Travel deals to be had:
The good news is that savvy travelers can take advantage of the political moment to score rooms at Istanbul's famously fashionable hotels. In truth, there haven't been enough accommodations in Istanbul to satisfy the recent boom in demand. Availability has been a real issue. Last December, all of the five-star hotels were booked solid, and new trendy options by major international hoteliers are sprouting up all the time.
Luxury hotels like the Four Seasons Hotel on the Bosphorus and the Park Hyatt Istanbul - Macka Palas, two of the finest hotels I've seen worldwide, routinely go for 700 euros in peak high season. Currently, the Park Hyatt has availability for 300 euros ($400), and I've found rates of 530 euros at the Four Seasons (about $700).
Mama Shelter, the Philippe Starck-designed hotel known to offer a good value, opened an Istanbul outpost in March. But its lowest available rate of 69 euros per night (about $91) was impossible to book; now, however, I'm able to find and book this rate in the month of June! Fans on Facebook brag about fabulous room upgrades because of low occupancy due to the protests. (Note: Mama Shelter is located in the Taksim area, though far enough away from the square with its address on Istiklal Street, the popular pedestrianized promenade in the happening Beyoğlu district.)
Not only that, but airfares to Turkey have never been better, thanks to fast-growing Turkish Airlines. With a hub in a central location between Asia and the Americas, the airline is putting the pressure on long-established carriers with a bold expansion strategy, quickly making a name for itself as a game-changer in the global airline industry. Throughout 2013, Turkish Airlines has slashed rates between the U.S. and Europe, even besting its competition on routes between the East Coast and Paris (Washington, D.C. to Toulouse from $651!). For this coming weekend, I found fares between New York and Istanbul for $1,310 and in the month of July, I found rates from $975 and August from $963!
The final verdict:
Carpe diem! A last-minute jaunt to the buzzing metropolis on the Bosphorus is totally viable. As always when traveling, exercise common sense and street smarts. The U.S. State Department issued a travel alert on June 4 that urged "U.S. citizens to avoid demonstrations and large gatherings."