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This summer, San Francisco-based travel advisor Jeffrey O'Neill spent his birthday in Turkey.
“I was there for about a month, and I probably could have stayed another two,” said O’Neill, who works for Protravel International. “It was just great.”
After arriving in mid-August, O’Neill split his time between Istanbul and the sunny resort destination of Bodrum on the country’s west coast. He had decided to make the trip, in part, because Turkey was one of the few places in Europe open this summer to Americans.
“The food is good, the culture is good [and] the exchange rate was favorable,” O’Neill said. “Things were open, and everyone was just humming along as if there was a pause in the pandemic.”
Turkey reopened to international visitors June 1. Through the end of August, more than 160,000 U.S. travelers visited the destination, according to data provided by Turkey’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism. That figure was down about 75% from the same three-month period last year.
Karen Fedorko Sefer, founder and CEO of Sea Song Tours, a Virtuoso and Signature-affiliated supplier based in Turkey, says her business has received substantial interest from American travelers this summer and has remained especially busy in September.
“We’ve consistently [worked with] clients since July 20 through now, and we see very strong bookings for 2020,” said Sefer, a U.S. expat who has lived in Turkey for more than 20 years. “We didn’t originally have a lot of requests for 2021 because everybody wanted to know if they could come in 2020. Now, in the last week or so, we’ve started to get more requests for the beginning of 2021.”
Sea Song Tours works mainly with travel advisors and designs high-end, customized Turkey itineraries for independent travelers and small groups.
Most of the recent U.S. bookings that the company is handling have been “very last minute,” according to Sefer.
“I think there is a lot of pent-up demand,” she said. “There are people who just want to go somewhere, and there are very few countries that will allow people to come in without restrictions. And Turkey does not require a PCR COVID-19 test, so it’s very simple to come.”
There are people who just want to go somewhere, and there are very few countries that will allow people to come in without restrictions. And Turkey does not require a PCR COVID-19 test, so it’s very simple to come.
International arrivals will undergo temperature and symptom screenings before passport control at the airport, according to information on Turkey’s Ministry of Tourism and Culture website. Symptomatic passengers and those with high temperatures will undergo polymerase chain reaction (PCR) COVID-19 testing at the airport and be isolated there until test results are available (typically about two hours).
“If you’re negative, you enter the country,” Sefer said. “If you’re positive, [healthcare officials] will take you to a private hospital, and they’ll treat you until you’re negative. We tell our clients to get a test before [they] come, just to be safe and for peace of mind.”
Calvin Kanoho, owner of Protravel-affiliated Inner Circle Travel in San Francisco, booked what he described as “spontaneous trips” to Turkey this summer for two different clients after sending them emails mentioning the destination was welcoming U.S. visitors.
“And then, three days later, they were there,” Kanoho said. “That’s the kind of quick response I had.”
Kanoho — who also has been booking near-term trips to French Polynesia and Mexico — arranged weeklong visits for his clients at Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at the Bosphorus. He notes that the $50 online visa applications required for American visitors to Turkey are “no trouble” to acquire.
“Prices are slashed,” he added. “You can get a five-star hotel probably at $200, maybe a little under $200, per night.”
O’Neill, meanwhile, mentions another significant selling point for Turkey at the moment: far fewer tourists.
“There was zero traffic,” O’Neill said of his time in Istanbul. “You could get from the Asian side to the European side in 15 minutes. This is a good time for those who want to travel and explore, because there just aren’t as many people.”
Sefer agrees, saying now is a wonderful time to visit the ancient city of Ephesus near Turkey’s western coast, in particular.
“It’s one of the most important Roman cities in the world, and it’s so amazing to go there now because the maximum number of people allowed into the site per day is 600,” she said. “In the past, we would have 50,000 people in there in one day. It’s an incredible opportunity to visit and not have the crowds.”
[Ephesus is] one of the most important Roman cities in the world, and it’s so amazing to go there now because the maximum number of people allowed into the site per day is 600. In the past, we would have 50,000 people in there in one day.
Sefer also says that many of her U.S. bookings are now including a couple nights in Cappadocia, a region located about an hour’s flight from Istanbul. She describes the destination as “a lunar landscape like nothing you’ve ever seen.”
“You stay in a cave hotel,” she said. “We do hot-air ballooning there, which everybody loves. You can also do hiking and biking. It’s just a very special place.”
Sefer says that Turkey’s government has instituted certification requirements for hotels, restaurants and transportation services, outlining a collection of COVID-19 safety protocols for each. Most major restaurants, shops, and attractions are all open, but adhering to mask and social distancing requirements.
Turkey has reported 324,443 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 8,441 deaths through Oct. 4, according to the World Health Organization.
Although acknowledging that “safe” is a relative term, O’Neill says he felt comfortable throughout his visit and appreciated the upbeat, positive atmosphere he encountered with residents. He was less happy, however, with his mid-August flight experience aboard Turkish Airlines, which has restarted service from U.S. airports in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Houston and Atlanta.
“Typically, they’re a very good airline, but because of COVID-19, they’ve taken the more conservative route, and they’ve cut everything on the plane,” O’Neill said, noting he flew business class without warm food or alcohol, and with every seat occupied. “I wouldn’t necessarily recommend going out of your way to fly them to get to Turkey.”
Even so, that subpar journey didn’t seem to have dampened the travel advisor’s appreciation for the destination.
“Turkey is an amazing country,” O’Neill said. “There’s a ton of diversity. If you want history, if you want beaches, if you want shopping, there’s really something for everyone to do. It’s a very easy plug-and-play for a client who just wants to get away.”
The DetailsTurkey’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism www.ktb.gov.tr
Turkey Tourism Promotion and Development Agencytga.gov.tr/home
Sea Song Tourswww.seasong.com