Should We Be Afraid to Travel to Turkey?

In less than two months, Daniel and I will be on an airplane to Istanbul. Our plan, as it stands today, is to spend three days in the historical region of Cappadocia, return to Istanbul for a week, then head south to the famous Mediterranean resort city of Antalya before departing for other destinations in Eastern Europe.

Cappadocia. Photo credit: Moyan Brenn

Cappadocia. Photo credit: Moyan Brenn

We knew when we made these plans several months ago that Turkey isn’t the safest or most stable destination in the world right now. In addition to being at the center of one of the greatest refugee crises in modern history, the country has been a frequent target of terrorism and violence, much of it perpetrated by ISIS.

The southeastern part of Turkey along the Syrian border is practically a war zone today, but we’ve never had plans to set foot anywhere near that area. Even hundreds of miles away, though, Turkey has seen more than its fair share of violence. In booking our trip, the October suicide bombing of a train station in the capital city of Ankara that left 102 people dead was still fresh in our memories, as was the January attack that killed 11 in an Istanbul tourist area.

We weren’t oblivious to these events when we made our plans. As evidenced by recent attacks in Paris and Brussels, terrorism and violence can happen anywhere. In spite of a few incidents, we were determined to not let irrational fear dictate our plans.

I knew exactly how my mom would react when I shared our tentative itinerary. “We’re going to travel to Turkey with my college friends this summer,” I shared expectantly. She didn’t say anything. Her panicked face said it all for her. My tasteless joke that “we just couldn’t resist their blow-out sales” went over about as poorly as anticipated.

Istanbul. Photo credit: Pedro Szekely

Istanbul. Photo credit: Pedro Szekely

Recent months, unfortunately, have not provided any respite from the violence. In February, 28 people were killed in a car bombing in Ankara, followed by another 37 in a similar attack in March. Less than a month ago, a suicide bomber hit another busy tourist area in Istanbul, killing 4 and injuring 46.

We’ve followed these events closely, but our general feelings have remained the same: millions and millions of people live, work, and travel in these cities every day without incident. Statistically speaking, the thousands of miles we’re driving around the western U.S. are much more dangerous and potentially deadly. We won’t let our travel plans or our lives be dictated by irrational fear.

Then, last Saturday, the U.S. embassy in Turkey issued an emergency travel warning:

“There are credible threats to tourist areas, in particular to public squares and docks in Istanbul and Antalya. Please exercise extreme caution if you are in the vicinity of such areas.”

I had to laugh a little bit. What exactly does “exercising extreme caution” entail in the context of someone walking into the middle of a public square and detonating a bomb? Perhaps I’ll ask each suspicious individual if he intends to murder me.

Regardless, this warning is clearly different – more serious, more concerning, and more specific. If we take our trip as planned, we’ll be spending an awful lot of time in the tourist areas and public squares of Istanbul and Antalya. Other countries have issued similar warnings, such as this one from Israel:

“There are immediate risks of attacks being carried out in the country, and we stress the threat applies to all tourism sites in Turkey.”

At what point does irrational fear become rational precaution?

As Steve at ThinkSaveRetire recently wrote, fear is an important and healthy human emotion. Fear can be unhealthy – as when Daniel’s grandmother nervously asked us, “Aren’t you worried about terrorists?” before our December trip to Ireland. But fear can also be healthy – “akin to reason and sensibility,” as Steve wrote eloquently. Unlike rural Ireland, Turkey has a real, palpable, specific threat of violence in the places we intend to visit.

We’re considering a few options:

Option 1: At one extreme, we could choose to continue with our plans as is and not let the travel warnings dissuade us. We’ll “exercise caution” when we visit the Blue Mosque and walk the beaches of Antalya, whatever that entails.

Option 2: As a compromise, we could keep some of our plans in tact but shorten our trip meaningfully. We would stay in Cappadocia and Istanbul for just a few days each, seeing some of the world’s greatest historical sites while they’re at our doorstep while reducing our time in high-risk areas.

Option 3: At the other extreme, we could decide that the threat is too great and forego our visit to Turkey entirely. We would still take our flight to Istanbul, but we would transfer right away to a connecting flight to another European destination. Perhaps we could tour the country someday in the future.

One of us – and I won’t share who, for now – thinks we should choose Option 3 and skip Turkey for now. With hundreds of other interesting new destinations to visit, why visit the one with credible threats of terrorism targeted at tourist areas?

The other – again, not sharing which of us – favors Option 2. We can avoid some tourist hotspots and cut a few days of activities from our plans, but why not see some of the greatest wonders of the world while we’re there? For all we know, Turkey may never be safer to visit than it is today. What a shame it would be to fly to Istanbul and not even see the place.

As we finalize our plans, we’ll also be considering the perspectives of my two friends with whom we intended to spend most of our time. If they feel strongly one way or another, we may be swayed. I’m planning to call them this week to see how they’re feeling and to suggest our preferred course of action.

What would you tell them?

10 Comments

  1. Very interesting topic. It’s tough for me to judge one way or another because it’s not us who are in this situation. Part of me feels like if you’re going to make the trip at all, you might as well see as much as you possibly can without cutting your trip short because this will probably be the one and only time that you’ll make the voyage over there. But yes, the risk of unwillingly getting involved in conflict, of course, is very real and demands attention.

    In the end, everybody needs to feel comfortable. I think you’re approaching this the right way by seeing how the others feel before making any final decisions about how to proceed. After all, tourism definitely helps out the local population in Turkey, and they probably welcome the company now more than ever.

    • I think we might be erring more toward that mindset of “let’s see it while we’re there” over the past few days. Daniel was supposed to visit Turkey once before, but he was so sick that he couldn’t even make the trip from the cruise ship — so to “almost” see Turkey twice would be especially aggravating!

  2. Ooooh. Tough call. I’m probably the Debbie Downer in the Option 3 camp. I’m not at all nervous about our trip to the UK this summer during the “travel advisory” because that is based on some idea of ANY CITY in Europe being attacked. The Turkey threat is much more specific and has a history of very specific places you are going being attacked several times. I think I would avoid it. But I also realize I err on the side of caution. Obviously part of me hopes you go anyway so I can see all the amazing pictures. 🙂

    • Completely agreed on not being nervous about the “all cities” advisory; what are we going to do, live in constant crippling fear and never see the world?

  3. Though one… Hard to say what I would do in your case.

    Recently, I went to the city centre of Brussels for an event. I do work in Brussels, but on the outside. It was the first time after the bombing that I went there. When driving to the centre, I passed the metro station where there was an attack… It felt weird.

    Back to the topic now: My core belief is that I try not to adjust my plans unless there are very explicit warnings. The idea of consulting with your friends living there makes a lot of sense to me. They have no choice, they are there already.

    I would tell them how each of you feels with these recent attacks. Maybe ask for suggestions on how to avoid dangerous places. Like, no train, only taxi? What else could you imagine to reduce the risk further?

    It is very likely I would pick option 3, given the 2 kids I have. I consider there are enough other destinations to visit that might not be so attractive for the bad guys.

    • I’m sure that’s an eerie feeling, amber — and yet life goes on there, too. I probably wasn’t clear enough in my post; our friends are Americans, also, and aren’t living in Turkey. I totally understand your point about kids. Our friends’ perspective a few months back was that they’d like to go now because they won’t want to go once they have children.

  4. Hi Matt, interesting thoughts.

    As an Australian living very far away, we follow global news as much as anyone else. I would be fine going to any state in the USA or area in Canada. I would be fine going to Ireland, the UK, Italy, Spain, Portugal etc (I’d be a little unsure about France and Belgium at this point)

    However, at this point I would definitely not risk going to Turkey. There have been multiple attacks and being a (i’m assuming) white American makes you stick out and more of a target (and you’re also in the target zones too). Why potentially risk your life at this point in time? Turkey will still be there when all of this has blown over.

    Tristan

  5. Skip Turkey for now and check out other countries. It’s just not worth the risk. But, if you decide to go, check your travel insurance and make sure you have appropriate coverage. Specifically look at any terrorist activity clauses.

  6. I’m in the camp of Option 2 and consult with your friends.

    • Adding on, I went on a high school trip to Turkey in the spring of 1998. I don’t remember the threat level other than that there was some sort of warning. I remember the school meeting with our parents and us students to explain that they were monitoring the situation with the State Department. I’m really glad I had the chance to see the area. We went to Ephesus, Pergamon, Troy, and Istanbul.

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