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How to Be a Respectful Visitor to Türkiye Post-Earthquake

On February 6, 2023, two devastating earthquakes with magnitudes of 7.8 and then 7.7 ripped through southeastern Türkiye and Syria, leaving a path of destruction in its wake. In addition to the loss of life of more than 50,000 people, the quake also destroyed thousands of buildings, turning homes to rubble and taking with it beloved ancient cultural heritage like the nearly 2,000-year-old Gaziantep Castle and UNESCO World Heritage Site of Diyarbakir Fortress. It was one of the worst natural disasters Türkiye has ever experienced. 

The damage from the earthquake roughly covers an area the size of Germany in Türkiye’s southwest region, from Hatay to Şanlıurfa. Today, many areas remain designated as no-go zones, as the situation on the ground is still unstable and potentially dangerous. It’s worth noting, however, that the disaster zone makes up only a fraction of Türkiye’s overall land mass, meaning most of the country is safe to travel in.

As travelers attempt to navigate their way back to Türkiye and plan future trips (or reschedule canceled ones), many are wondering what tourism currently looks like, and how it has changed. One question often looms over foreigners when considering a destination that has recently experienced a major disaster: Is it more responsible to stay away or to return? Many wonder if there be any ongoing danger, or if visitors are a burden on hosts as the country is trying to recover. 

I live in Istanbul, 600 miles from the epicenter, and have for the past four years. Many are quick to point out that tourist dollars can help, but if Türkiye has taught me anything in my time here, it’s that there’s much more to being a good visitor. I canvassed people across the country for suggestions and insight, both for practical tips and the current thoughts on welcoming visitors. Türkiye is, after all, known for its hospitality—and now is the time for those visiting to return the sentiment. Here’s how. 

The seaside resort town of Bodrum is once again bustling with boats full of international visitors and Turkish travelers.  AegeanBlue/Getty

Where you can currently visit

In most parts of the country, life—and tourism—has resumed. Flights are operating at their regular schedules, both flying into Türkiye from abroad and within it. On the Mediterranean coast, the annual signs of impending peak-season—warm orange blossom-scented breezes, chockablock with sun loungers lining the shore, vendors hawking iced raw almonds—are sweeping in. Boats are mooring in the international seaside resort town of Bodrum, which expects to see its annual 1.5 million visitors return again this year. In Fethiye, people are back to paragliding off the Babadağ mountain peaks, one of the most popular spots in the world for the sport.  

“With the approaching summer season, the tourism sector is gaining momentum,” Özlem Gökşin, the director of sales at D Maris Bay on the Datca Peninsula and D-Hotels & Resorts. “As a nation, we like to host guests; our door is always open to people who want to visit our country. We think that the tourists who visit now are supportive in the healing process.”

More than 200 miles north, the ancient seaside towns of Alaçatı and Foça have been a favorite Turkish holiday getaway. Many Turkish families have summer homes here and have come every year for generations. To go there in a time like this is a balm.

Nearby on the island of Bozcaada, the annual Bozcaada Jazz Festival will continue. “Even though we are going through an incredibly difficult time, our ability to come together will bring us closer to recovery,” says Gizem Gezenoğlu, the festival’s director. “Music, festivals, art, and creative encounters are all powerful healers.” The annual festival brings together international jazz musicians along with cultural talks and wine tastings in September. 

And more than 600 miles from the epicenter, Istanbul is thrumming: The long-awaited Museum of Modern Art has just opened after a five-year wait, along with the Peninsula Hotel. “Not a leaf was moving this spring, as we say in Turkish, but now the tourism flow is back to normal,” says Liz Kurumlu, an expert travel guide and translator who hosts trips in Istanbul and across the country. “It seems that people are also staying longer than before, adding specialized trips like food tours or hiking in Cappadocia on to their Istanbul itinerary,” she adds.

In Cappadocia, Mehmet Halis Aydogan, the CEO of Cappadocia Voyager Balloons, says that many people postponed their trips after the earthquake, but bookings are rising back to normal levels this summer. “After the earthquake Türkiye saw that everybody in the world was with us in solidarity. We still feel this support and so I think tourists are very respectful of our recovery from the earthquake,” he says, adding that May and June are the best months for taking a hot air balloon over Cappadocia. 

Cautious travelers can also choose destinations that are farther away from major fault lines, like Antalya on the coast, Cappadocia and Konya in central Anatolia, or the ancient verdant mountain town of Trabzon on the Black Sea with the recently restored Sumela Monastery. Even cities like Mardin, which is in closer proximity to the earthquake zone, doesn’t sit on a major faultline and was unaffected by February’s earthquake. 

Being a good guest

Every person in Türkiye is carrying their own grief. “People are stuck in this cesspool of ‘Is it ok to laugh? Have fun?’ Some are and do, while others are drowning in the darkness of all that has happened,” says Arwa Damon, a journalist and the president and founder of the nonprofit aid network INARA. Many have lost something, whether it’s a loved one, their home, or a feeling of safety and normalcy. While visiting Türkiye during this time is welcomed, it’s important to be an informed and compassionate guest. Wherever you visit, be kind and patient with people. 

“There are internally displaced people, and people who either have ancestry or friends and relatives from the earthquake affected zones, and many people working in the tourism sector and hotels or restaurants who may have lost people in the earthquake,” Cihan Tutluoglu, the co-owner of Anemos Hotel, points out. 

“There’s not a single person in Türkiye who has not been affected by the earthquake directly or indirectly, Kurumlu says. “Many displaced families who lost their homes have moved to Istanbul, so visitors will encounter earthquake survivors here and other places in Türkiye.” She emphasizes that it’s generally okay to broach the topic of the earthquake–sensitively, of course. “I think most people want to share their experience; to talk about what happened and how they were affected. This is part of the healing process too.” 

“If they meet and chat with an earthquake survivor, it will make them happy even if they wish to get well soon,” Gökşin of D Maris Bay, says. The Turkish phrase “geçmiş olsun” (pronounced getch-mish ol-soon) means the equivalent of “get well soon” or “I hope your difficulties will pass.” It’s a kind way to express sympathy to someone. 

“Coming to visit Türkiye is exactly what the country needs right now”

Türkiye has 19 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and each offers a different lens into the country’s history and culture. Gezenoğlu emphasized that learning about the local history and culture can make people feel that the world cares about them. “If people have the opportunity to visit any of [those heritage sites], they may become more connected with Türkiye and the wider region. Such connections and bonds are much-needed right now.”

And still, as many people have lost work and much more, economic support is needed. Supporting local businesses is an easy way visitors can help people rebuild their lives and communities. “The tourism industry directly employs millions of people, not to mention the shops, restaurants, and bazaars that rely on tourism to keep open. Coming to visit Türkiye is exactly what the country needs right now,” Damon says.

Ways to help

Hotels, restaurants, and other hospitality groups have been offering relief to earthquake regions and survivors through partnerships and their own initiatives. The five-star Istanbul hotel Çırağan Palace Kempinski has sent truckloads of emergency disaster supplies like generators, wheelchairs, and baby food to the earthquake zone and is running a humanitarian aid campaign through the end of this year. The chefs from Istanbul’s Ema BakeryBasta! Neo Bistro, and two-Michelin starred Turk Fatih Tutak traveled to the region and set up emergency kitchens to feed people. 

Small local businesses and organizations are also pitching in with their own initiatives, so keep an eye out for places that are supporting earthquake recovery efforts and direct your spending there. “Many artists donated their concert earnings to the region, while others organized donation events and established large art funds,” Gezenoğlu says. “As cultural professionals, it is our responsibility to bring long-term and lasting initiatives to the region through the healing power of art.”

Salt Galata, a modern art museum in Istanbul, recently held a benefit exhibit with more than 200 works donated by artists and galleries and directed the proceeds to education for school-age children in the earthquake zone. Kurumlu points out places like Postane, a culture center that focused on social and environmental impact, easily fit into traveler’s itineraries for a variety of reasons: “You can go to Postane’s roof, have your coffee with a fantastic view, buy a souvenir from their responsibly sourced gift shop, and a percentage of their proceeds goes to the earthquake recovery.”

If you’re not visiting Türkiye, there are reliable organizations you can donate to like INARA, which relies on donations to provide targeted essential aid and mental health relief to children and families impacted by the earthquake in both Türkiye and Syria. International nonprofits like the US-based Turkish Philanthropy Funds and Relief International are still accepting donations. There are also local grassroot cooperatives like Topraktan Tabağa, a chef-run pop-up kitchen where you can select food items that get delivered directly to them through their online shop.  

Cherish the sites you visit

People come to Türkiye for many reasons—the hospitality, the food, the beauty, the culture, but they tend to leave with one thing sticking in their mind: the history. Travel through Türkiye and it’s easy to see that it’s a land that reads as a history book; whether it’s the 10,000-year-old megaliths in Göbekli Tepe (the world’s oldest), the Hellenistic temple-tombs on top of Mount Nemrut, Cappadocia’s subterranean cave cities, the ancient ruins of Ephesus, or the Hagia Sophia. 

But these sites also serve as a testament to impermanence: the February 6 earthquake will leave a notch on Türkiye’s long timeline. It took down some of the country’s most historic buildings, destroyed millions of lives, and collapsed entire cities, like Antakya—the ancient city of Antioch and one of Türkiye’s culinary capitals before the earthquake. The underlying message of these things is always that you should see the world while you can, be a good guest in the places you visit, and to witness history with open eyes and honor those who have–or are currently–living it. 

Source : CN Traveler