TOURISM, TERRORISM AND ISTANBUL By RJ Furth
Sandy and I returned to London last night after five great days in Istanbul. Check any travel website or magazine poll and you’ll see, year after year, that Istanbul is listed in the top ten of tourist destinations, and for good reason. The historical sites are among the most interesting in the world, the food is outstanding, the people friendly, hotels world class. Wandering the ancient cobblestone streets is always a rewarding adventure. One surprise, and something I rarely write about, is that Istanbul has the cleanest toilets we’ve every used anywhere on the planet. Toilets in hotels, restaurants, museums, public facilities, were freshly washed and spotless. We had no problems with our stomachs, felt safe anywhere and at any time of day or night. And yet we saw few western tourists. There were a good amount of tourists from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, Indonesia and Malaysia, Iran and Azerbaijan. Tourists from the U.S., Germany, France, Australia, Great Britain and other western nations were few. The reason is obvious: fear of terrorism. Just as obvious is the growth of Islamophobia in the west.
In January an ISIS suicide bomber killed ten people, including eight German tourists, next to the Blue Mosque, one block from the hotel where we just stayed. This followed other terrorist attacks in other parts of Turkey during the previous year and, not surprisingly, tourism took a beating. I understand why tourists would avoid a place that has suffered terrorist attacks, and I also understand why some people have questioned our wisdom in visiting Jordan two years ago and Istanbul last week. However, I suspect that a good portion of the fear is, in reality, part of the growing fear of radical Islam. I did some research this morning and learned that after the dreadful 2004 terrorist attack in Madrid tourism recovered within two weeks. The London terrorist attacks of 2005 were followed by no notable drop in tourism. (Fortune magazine.) Following the two horrible incidents of terrorism in Paris there was a slight dip in tourism, yet no lasting effect. Two American tourist have been killed in Israel, one just a week ago, and I’ve found nothing that indicates a drop in tourism. Two months after the suicide bombing at the Blue Mosque tourism has still not recovered. Our son Alan visited Istanbul one year ago and he told me that the place was packed with Germans and Australians and other young western travelers. We were told by nearly every restaurant and shop and at our hotel that tourism was significantly down from a year ago. Two months without an incident and Istanbul has yet to recover.
Donald Trump’s rants against Islam are condemned by many, but I doubt that his followers were the type of people who traveled much to Muslim countries. I also suspect that many westerners now believe it when the Donald thunders that Muslims hate us (meaning Christians of European descent). Certainly the west’s record of disastrous ventures in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Libya has earned us many enemies. And I also admit that, having lived in Malaysia (a Muslim nation) for six years and traveled often in Muslim nations, Sandy and I do not fear Muslims or Islam. Maybe we are naive, but I do know that Muslim nations have historically allowed their Jewish and Christian citizens to live in peace. Muslims have lived peacefully in the west, including the U.S., for centuries. Muslim terrorism is a relatively new phenomenon and it is not widespread. Many Muslims hate our governments and their aggressions, but they do not hate us as people. In fact, many Muslims love our democracy and crave our freedoms. Islam does not preach terrorism. Terrorism is a political expression, not a religious one.
I understand why tourists visit New York and Orlando and Paris and Barcelona, while avoiding Muslim destinations like Istanbul. We were greeted warmly by everyone during our five days in Istanbul. The Turks we met were highly educated, well read and incredibly friendly. They loved talking politics and religion, and they are very proud of their nation’s history. Jews continue to live in Istanbul as they have for centuries. The western tourist who visit continue to rave about their experience. We have yet to hear any negative comments about the country, and we still get a thrill every time we hear the muezzin call the faithful to prayer, a call of peace, not hate. And did I mention that incredibly clean toilets?