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TALKING TURKEY

As visitation numbers dampened by terror attacks, a failed coup and regional tensions begin to rebound, Turkey looks to reclaim its spot as one of the world’s top tourism destinations.

One of two private beaches at the Mandarin Oriental Bodrum. One of two private beaches at the Mandarin Oriental Bodrum.

One of two private beaches at the Mandarin Oriental Bodrum.

One of two private beaches at the Mandarin Oriental Bodrum.

ISTANBUL — Three years after a series of terrorist attacks shook what had been an unprecedented boom in tourism to Turkey, inbound travel is better than expected this year, and the country is positioning itself with cautious optimism to regain its stature as a top tourism hot spot and become the global hub between East and West. 

In October, the first phase of what officials say will be the largest airport in the world opens here, and Turkish Airlines, which flies to more countries than any other carrier, is adding flights and packages to lure travelers to and through the city, rather than to other European or Middle Eastern points. 

Next year, a refurbished cruise port opens in Istanbul that officials are hoping will attract many of the major cruise lines that abandoned the country after a series of terrorist attacks and an attempted coup in 2016. 

The two major projects will reach completion as hoteliers and travel companies dare finally talk of a recovery from the events that all but shut down tourism to the country. 

In Istanbul, representatives of the Shangri-La and the Ciragan Palace Kempinski hotels, said their once free-falling occupancies have been hovering around 80% this spring. Much of the new demand, they said, is coming from the Middle East, South America and Russia.

The return of Europeans and Americans is slower but is growing nonetheless. In the coastal resort city of Bodrum, Mandarin Oriental hotel manager Ersev Demiroz said summer is almost fully booked. 

“Europeans are booking left and right,” Demiroz said. “We are also seeing more Americans book as well, although not as many as there used to be.”

The Ariana Sustainable Luxury Lodge in Cappadocia said it is expecting its best season since opening just before the unrest began.

“It’s getting better,” said general manager Seyfettin Cetincakmak. “It’s not like 2014 and 2015, but it’s better than nothing.”

Mustafa Dogan, Turkish Airlines’ vice president of sales for the Americas, said he still watches the news closely with a bit of anxiety about new travel bans and such, underscoring how fragile the recovery remains. 

Just last fall, a diplomatic kerfuffle prompted the U.S. and Turkey to halt the processing of each other’s tourist visas, a temporary setback that sent shock waves through the tourism industry here. 

Indeed, it’s been rough few years. With the value of Turkey’s currency dropping against the euro and the dollar and tough economic times, local said they haven’t seen things this bad since the 1980s. Overall, however, they seem confident the political situation has stabilized, and recovery is ahead. 

And with a favorable exchange rate (one dollar buys 4.46 Turkish lira), lower hotel rates and special packages, now is a great time for Americans and others to put Turkey back on their bucket lists. As Koray Sahmali, founder and managing director of the luxury tour operator Icons & Styles said of inquiries from customers about the safety level of Turkey: “Before I didn’t feel comfortable to tell them to come. Now I do.” 

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In 2015, Turkey was riding the high of a tourism boom that had people mentioning Istanbul, with its extraordinary history and a cosmopolitan but culturally diverse vibe, in the same breath as destinations such as Paris, New York and Milan. Just driving out of Ataturk airport, it is easy to see why. 

Istanbul, split between Asia and Europe by the Bosporus, which connects the Mediterranean and Black Seas, has more than 2,500 mosques, stunning water views, attractions like the Grand Bazaar, a hip night life and world-class museums, restaurants and hotels. 

Along Istanbul’s Bosporus alone, visitors will find a lineup of some of the finest names in luxury hotels, including the Four Seasons, Shangri-La, Ritz Carlton and, of course, the iconic Ciragan Palace Kempinski, a renovated Ottoman palace world-famous for its luxurious suites, restaurant and meetings rooms. 

Beyond Istanbul, attractions include the ancient cave cities and rock formations in Cappadocia as well as Bodrum on the Aegean Sea. That rich mix of history, culture and modern hotels, along with the global growth of Turkish Airlines, attracted tourists in record numbers. According to the tourism ministry, visitation nearly doubled between 2004 and 2014, hitting a high of 36.8 million in 2014 and holding close to that, at 36.2 million, in 2015. 

But just as Istanbul was climbing to the top of the charts of the most popular international destinations, the city was hit in 2016 with a series of terrorist bombings, a deadly attack on Ataturk Airport and an attempted coup. 

The country’s proximity to Syria didn’t help. According to hotel data firm STR, occupancy at Turkish hotels fell 17% in 2016, while average daily rates dropped 22%, from $322 to $252. Rates are slowly climbing back, hitting $276 last year and $282 this year. Data just on Istanbul from HotStats shows occupancy dropped into the 30% range. 

But with a quiet 2017, visitors have begun to return. Official figures show the country had 32 million tourists last year, and the number is expected to once again top 36 million this year. The average occupancy of hotels monitored by STR is now at 60%, compared with 62% in 2015.

Signs of revival are clearly visible. On a recent morning, busload after busload of tourists thronged Haghia Sophia, the 6th-century basilica-turned-mosque-turned-museum that remains one of the world’s architectural marvels.

Next door is the famous Blue Mosque, and across the street is the ancient Basilica Cistern. 

As a fellow traveler and I angled for a spot in the crowd to get a photo of the tulip carpet on display outside the mosque, we chatted about the widespread perceptions among Americans that Turkey is unsafe. Probably the biggest danger, he joked, was being hit with a selfie stick. Indeed, in my nine days traveling the country I never felt uncomfortable. (OK, maybe a bit, briefly, when hundreds of armed officers, K-9 units and SWAT vehicles secured the Shangri-La so the president, prime minister and cabinet members could attend a wedding the weekend we stayed there.) 

The bulk of the tourists appeared to be Middle Eastern, Asian and Latin American. I was hard-pressed to find another blonde in the crowds. Still, I didn’t feel out of place. And only once did anyone even ask my nationality. He was a shopkeeper in Cappadocia, who, after I responded, indicated he was very happy to hear of Americans returning. 

Because of its geographic position at the edge of Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Africa, Turkey has a truly diverse and accepting population. 

“Everyone here is nice to everyone,” Sahmali said in reference to visitors, then added with a laugh, “except to each other.”

Turkey will be taking advantage of its location as a natural geographic gateway with the opening later this year of the new Istanbul airport. Officials say it will be the largest in the world, with an annual passenger capacity of up to 200 million. 

It is being constructed in four phases over 76.5 million square feet, and the first phase opens in October with three runways and a terminal that can handle up to 90 million passengers a year. 

The ultramodern airport, with architectural nods to the mosques, baths and domes for which Istanbul is known, will include 460 hotel rooms, a 240,000-square-foot VIP lounge, an on-site medical center, spas and, of course, shopping and dining to rival the world’s finest airports. It will also have futuristic touches like information robots. 

Turkish Airlines, which is the world’s largest carrier by number of countries served and flies more connections to Europe, the Middle East and Africa than any other airline, has big plans to match the big airport. With a fleet that has grown from 162 in 2003 to 517 last year, Dogan said the airline has 231 aircraft on order, or “enough to start a new airline.”

As part of its expansion, he said, the airline plans to increase the frequency of flights from the U.S., where it currently has nonstops from Atlanta, Boston, Houston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Miami, Washington and Chicago. Dogan said the airline may also be adding a new route from Seattle. 

In addition to the free overnight hotel rooms that Turkish Airlines packages with long-haul itineraries that bring passengers through Istanbul on their way to Africa and other far-flung locales, the airline has begun offering two- and three-day layover specials, complete with visas, to encourage more travelers who use Istanbul as a gateway to stay a bit and enjoy the country.

Hotels, too, are putting together packages to lure more Americans and Europeans without resorting to the rate-cutting that marked the 2016 downturn. 

For example, the Ciragan Palace Kempinski, which reportedly eclipsed $130 million in revenue in 2014, is offering three nights for $30,000 in what is normally a $15,000-a-night suite in the part of the hotel that is a restored 17th-century palace. The package also includes, among many perks, first- or business-class airfare for two from anywhere in the world (with the class depending on where you are coming from), private boat or helicopter transfers from the airport and custom wardrobe trunks. The pricing is good through the end of 2018. 

“We have a responsibility to keep up rates, so we are combining it with packages,”said Neslihan Sen, director of public relations for the Ciragan Palace Kempinski. “Otherwise the value for Istanbul will drop.”

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TURKISH DELIGHTS

What to do in Turkey

Haghia Sophia — No visit to Istanbul is complete without seeing the Haghia Sophia, a former Christian cathedral turned into an Ottoman imperial mosque and then a museum.

Bosporus — A trip to Istanbul is also incomplete without a boat tour of the Bosporus, which offers stunning views of everything that makes this city unique, from its modern luxury hotels to Ottoman-era homes and the city’s thousands of mosques, forts and castles. There are plenty of public ferries, or you can rent your own yacht for around $150 an hour.

Spas — I’ve always heard of Turkish hammams, but I never knew exactly what they were. While there are plenty of public hammams, or baths, around the country, all the luxury hotels offer their own treatment areas where you can lie on heated marble tables and be doused, scrubbed and massaged in private. It’s a great detoxifying ritual that removes layers of dead skin. Long ago, local lore has it, brides-to-be were taken to hammams by the groom’s family so they could get a peak at her for approval.

Where to stay

In Istanbul: 

Ciragan Palace Kempinski — Perhaps the most iconic hotel in Istanbul, the Ciragan Palace Kempinski offers a resort-like setting on the Bosporus, with suites, dining and meetings rooms in the renovated palace and newer rooms in the main hotel. 

Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at Sultanahmet — Within walking distance to Haghia Sophia and the Grand Bazaar, this hotel is a renovated former prison adorned with beautiful tile and artwork. Its rooftop terrace offers views of the Haghia Sophia and the Bosporus.

In Cappadocia:

Translated, Cappadocia means the land of beautiful horses. But it is best known for its tall, conical rock formations and ancient castles, churches and houses that are built into the rocks.

Cappadocia is also known for its hiking trails and hot air balloons. Most mornings, more than 100 balloons dot the already breathtaking landscape.

Ariana Sustainable Luxury Lodge — With just 11 suites developed around an ancient cave home, this hotel offers the best of modern luxury and traditional Cappadocia. Set almost as high up as one of the region’s two highest-elevation castles, it also offers a quiet place from which to watch the hot air balloons and take in the stunning scenery.

In Bodrum:

A port city on the Aegean, Bodrum is to Turkey what Ibiza is to Spain, a place to see and be seen, with resorts overlooking the deep-blue waters near the point where the Aegean meets the Mediterranean.

The city, called Halicarnassus of Caria in ancient times, was home to the Mausoleum of Mausolus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Mandarin Oriental, Bodrum — On a private bay, this resort offers everything you need, with fine dining, large rooms and expansive suites with private pools, private cabanas and a spa that more than lives up to this brand’s reputation for excellence.

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