Sign Up for Our Monthly Europe Newsletter
Growing up, my intrepid auntie would often mail me postcards from her global adventures. I remember pinning the postcard from Istanbul over my desk because, ironically, it exuded a sense of peace; the only noise that interfered with the stoicism of the Blue Mosque in the moody photo were silhouettes of birds, looming above its four minarets.
However, when I first visited this metropolis — which bridges both Europe and Asia — back in 2016, I realized my postcard-perfect vision was not aligned with reality. In fact, Istanbul was anything but tranquil. After all, the city is an epicenter of art, culture, food and history. Energy pulsates through its storied walls.
Or it did, until the latest pandemic-induced government shutdown.
Turkey’s Enhanced COVID-19 RestrictionsSuddenly, this city has become still as a postcard once more. Through much of the COVID-19 pandemic, Turkey was one of the few countries Americans could access relatively easily. It saw a tremendous surge in tourism in early autumn from global passports, while much of Europe and Asia remained essentially locked down to the rest of the world.
RELATED: A Current Look Into Traveling to Turkey as an American
But just 23 hours before my flight from Denmark was scheduled to take off in early December, Turkey went into a partial lockdown due to a massive spike in COVID-19 cases, as advised by its health sector. The lockdown’s restrictions (which began in December and were still in effect as of press time) are quite severe: curfews on weeknights between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m., and a total curfew on weekends between 9 p.m. on Friday and 5 a.m. on Monday (with exceptions for specific categories of essential workers). Harsh fines punish rulebreakers, enforced by police who patrol the streets. At press time, no end date had yet been announced for the curfews.
Here’s the atypical bit: The curfews don’t apply to everyone. These harsh lockdown measures were instigated solely for Turkish locals, meaning tourists are exempt from the rules. Moreover, Turkey does not require tourists to present a negative coronavirus test — or even quarantine — upon arrival.
My exemption from the rules had me wondering: Was it exploitive to visit for the sake of tourism right now? And would there be animosity between tourists and locals? I felt some guilt about using my “tourist privilege” to explore — but then again, these rules were established to keep the dying tourism industry afloat and, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council, 9.4% of Turkey's total employment is tourism-related.
My exemption from the rules had me wondering: Was it exploitive to visit for the sake of tourism right now?
Enhanced Hotel Health MeasuresAfter touching down in Istanbul, I checked into Ciragan Palace Kempinski Istanbul, the stylish five-star property perched elegantly on the European shores of the Bosphorus. Feeling a little nervous about my first overnight in a hotel since the pandemic began, my worries subsided as a thermal camera took my temperature at the entrance.
This was only one of many initiatives implemented through the hotel’s “White Glove Service,” which was established in April 2020 as a Kempinski Hotels brand-wide initiative. Additional optional service included luggage cleaning and disinfection before being delivered to rooms. It was evident that the hotel was still catering to foreign guests, as I overheard a few languages throughout my stay.
My room, as expected, was immaculate. At check-in, I was offered the “Do Not Enter My Room” option, which means that, while all services remained available, Ciragan employees would not enter my room unless I explicitly asked. Any room service deliveries and luggage assistance took place in front of my room by white-gloved, masked employees.
Dining During LockdownIstanbul is a gourmand’s fantasy, and my pre-pandemic adventures to the city often included escapades across the Bosphorus to revel in baklava heaven. One of the most significant changes on this trip was the lack of in-restaurant dining experiences (legal ones, at least). I had heard through the grapevine that some restaurants had opened for tourists, but I didn’t test my luck. Instead, I indulged at the hotel’s own restaurants, where menus had been safely redesigned with QR codes implemented for hygienic purposes.
“If restaurants are closed to the public while a travel agent is booking for their customer, the travel agent should recommend booking a stay at a property that is still providing dining options to their guests, such as Ciragan Palace Kempinski,” said Ralph Radtke, the hotel’s general manager. “[Our] property is proud to offer extensive dining experiences to its guests and continues to do so with health and safety top of mind.”
If restaurants are closed to the public while a travel agent is booking for their customer, the travel agent should recommend booking a stay at a property that is still providing dining options to their guests.
Touring Around IstanbulThose who choose to travel while much of the planet is on pause are given exclusive access to the world’s most prodigious landmarks without hordes of tourists. I would be remiss to say that standing under the majestic Hagia Sophia without drowning in a sea of selfie sticks and tour groups wasn’t a life travel highlight. Additionally, many of Istanbul’s famed institutions, such as the Topkapi Palace Museum, stayed open for tourists throughout the weekend lockdowns. Even the city’s notorious traffic dissipated — I was stunned at how seamlessly my taxi crossed to the Asian continent while heading back to the airport.
We highly encourage those interested in visiting [Istanbul] to continuously monitor CDC guidelines for any changes that may have been put in place.
While traveling to Turkey is possible right now, travel advisors are more critical resources than ever before, as clients navigate how to book suitable flights and hotels safely, as well as keep up with changing rules and guidelines.
“We highly encourage those interested in visiting [Istanbul] to continuously monitor CDC guidelines for any changes that may have been put in place,” Radtke said. “It is a traveler’s responsibility to continue to take necessary safety precautions, such as COVID-19 testing before and after traveling, or continuing to keep a safe social distance from others throughout their visit.”
But here’s the real question: Is traveling to Turkey worth it right now? That depends on individual comfort level aligning with many other factors — factors that may change daily. Do I believe my foray to Istanbul was necessary at that precise moment in time? Honestly, no. Although I’ll forever cherish that particular postcard from my auntie, I’ve learned it’s Istanbul’s pulsating — sometimes chaotic — energy that continuously draws me back.
That energy is worth the wait.
The DetailsCiragan Palace Kempinski Istanbulwww.kempinski.com