Between recent attacks on government offices in Istanbul, protests over educational content, clashes between protesters and the police, instability in neighboring Syria, and Turkey’s perceived image as a Muslim nation with limited freedoms, many Americans and some Europeans have expressed fear over the idea of stepping foot in Turkey. Right now, from watching the news, it [may] seem like a dangerous place to travel, and certainly not an ideal retirement destination. But are these misgivings unfounded? And is it actually safe to travel (and live) in Turkey?
The Short Answer: Yes, probably.
The Long Answer: Yes, probably, as long as you keep your wits about you and act in a respectful and civilized manner. Provided you act as you wish visitors to your community to act, you should not come against any major problems. Turkey actually has a very low crime rate, and no inherent cultural dislike of individual foreigners. Keep an open mind, be attentive and adjust to your surroundings, talk to people as equals, carry a sense of curiosity, and you should be fine.
While Syria does indeed border Turkey, the border is now closed, and that corner of Turkey is very far away from popular destinations, all of which are largely unaffected by the conflict. For comparison: Kobani is 972 kilometers from Antalya; San Diego and LA are respectively 28 and 217 kilometers from Tijuana – and yet no one avoids them because of their proximity to a city with such a high crime rate and documented illegal refugees and contraband trafficking. Proximity does not equate actual danger. We do not recommend visiting southeast Turkey for the time being, just to be on the safe side, but most of the country is largely untouched by the conflict in Syria. Most Syrian refugees who have moved away from Turkey’s border towns have found shelter in Istanbul and Ankara; some locals have attributed a perceived rise in pick-pocketing to their arrival. While there is not yet enough evidence for such correlation, it is still always good to watch your belongings and carry your purse in front when in larger cities or crowded areas, regardless of which country you are in.
For an August, 2015 update, please see: “Is It Still Safe to Travel in Turkey?”
While Turkey’s population is listed as being 99.8% Muslim, keep in mind that this number encompasses a huge range of beliefs and practices. Officially, The Turkish Republic is a secular state. The country also has a rich religious history including not just Sunni Islam, but also Judaism, Orthodox Christianity, Various Christian Sects, Sufism, Alevis, Folk Beliefs and more. Some people retain a mix of folk practices and modern Islam; some people adhere to conservative Islam; many people, especially in Turkey’s eastern metropolises, are moderate or non-practicing Muslims. As in America and Europe, many formerly religious holidays have been adopted by the entire population, regardless of their religious beliefs and daily practices. Thus, if you are invited to someone’s home for Ramazan or Korban, think of it as being invited by a friend to their home for Christmas Dinner – they’re not necessarily trying to convert you, and the religious overtones may be fairly light. Keep in mind though that there are many religious traditions that have seeped into the culture over the centuries (along with cultural traditions that have seeped into religious practices); even in moderate of secular homes some behaviors may be perceived as odd or rude. Follow your host’s lead and ask if you have questions – your host will probably love explaining part of their cultural heritage.
Harassment & Street Safety:
Turkey is a huge country (at 302,535 sq miles it’s twice the size of California and almost as big as Germany) with a hugely varied population. Some areas are more liberal in terms of lifestyle and modes of dress than towns in the US or continental Europe; others are quite socially conservative. On the whole, Turkey’s population tends to be more liberal than Turkish immigrant communities in continental Europe (as many people immigrated in the 1960’s and communities developed differently after immigration). Generally, the seaside towns and big cities to the West are more modern and liberal, though even on the outskirts of Istanbul or just outside coastal resorts you may also find recent internal immigrants from the East who are living a more traditional lifestyle.
Generally, the places most frequented by foreigners, and the places where foreigners reside, are also among the most liberal and cosmopolitan. Here you will find minimal ‘clash of the civilizations’: plenty of elderly Turkish women spend their summers sunbathing in swimsuits with plunging necklines. Seaside resorts like Olympos and Fethiye see people young and old, foreign and local alike walking around in bikinis and boardshorts, beer in hand.
However, we do recommend that you be flexible and attune yourself to your surroundings. For women, carry a wrap or a sundress in your bag and make sure that you are modestly covered when walking through town; for men, put on a shirt when you leave the boat or beach. Public spaces are generally considered family-friendly spaces. Nudity is not acceptable on public beaches, especially where children are present. Some female visitors will sunbathe topless in public, but in Turkey this is generally considered vulgar. Dress modestly, don’t get riotously drunk, trash a public place or litter, and there should be no reason locals will shower you with negative attention.
Do note that Turkish people have a great respect for both family and older generations. If you are traveling with kids, expect more smiles (as long as said kids aren’t misbehaving in public). If you are above the age of fifty, expect people to give up their seat, open the door for you, offer to help with your bags, and generally act a lot gentler. Older people are not invisible in Turkey. Don’t be alarmed if a stranger tries to assist you unless, of course, something seems very odd about the situation.
In recent months there have been a number of attacks on protesters by police forces, and on the government by protesters or alleged terrorists. However, keep in mind that these are events occurring outside of the expat sphere, and protests are generally contained to a few streets within a city. Protests in Turkey have not witnessed the same scale of public violence and destruction of property that occurred in the US after Michael Brown, or has been known to occur following football matches in the UK…
In terms of street safety, violent crime, and street harassment, Turkey is still far safer than most European countries and US cities. Violence is often reported, but when reading crime statistics and talking to local expats, it becomes clear that living and traveling in Turkey is certainly not less safe than the US or Western Europe.
You may find in Turkey a dislike of foreign governments perceived as using Turkey as a pawn to further their own regional interests. This is especially sorely felt with Syria at the moment – some believe that US government involvement worsened the situation in Syria, but has left Turkey to take in and deal with the inrush of refugees. However, this does not translate over into particular dislike of individual foreigners and many retired Navy and Army personnel reside in Turkey without incident.
Some Tips to Keep You Safe:
- Observe people around you and alter your behavior or your dress accordingly.
- Act as you would like tourists in your own hometown to act. If you would be embarrassed to do it at home, don’t do it here.
- Always show a willingness to listen to other people’s opinions, even if you think you disagree. You may both change each others’ minds. Even if you don’t like their opinions, you will at least demonstrate that you value their ideas and view them not as an opponent. Be a good ambassador for your country.
- If someone seems to be getting angry with you, strive to understand what is upsetting them – use a phrasebook or engage someone on site to translate. It may be that you just accidentally did something that they perceive as very offensive. As long as they understand that this was an accident and you are trying to understand, the situation should not escalate.
- If you find yourself in a situation where you feel uncomfortable, go into a public place where there are other witnesses (such as a small shop or a restaurant) or attach yourself to an older local of the same gender (perhaps to ask the time, inquire about the bus, etc…). You are always less likely to be bothered if you are not alone, if you appear to have a local ally, or if there are other witnesses present. Most Turkish people do not appreciate the minority among them who try to scam foreigners or otherwise act in a rude manner, and thus you will probably receive sufficient aid and defense if you urn from the situation and ask for help.
- Ask for help if you need it. Turkish people are genuinely hospitable and willing to help guests (and as a foreigner in their country, you are automatically a ‘guest’).
- If you are female and traveling along, ask if it’s okay to bring your “friend” along if invited somewhere by a single male.
- If you are female, tone down the smiles and friendly behavior when interacting with Turkish males. Traditionally, friendly behavior from females is seen as forward and inviting. Be polite, but a little more distant than you would be with men in your own country. On the other hand, don’t be alarmed if Turkish females act much warmer and are physically closer than in your home country.
- For men: be courteous to women (open the door at shops, never shove); for everyone: be courteous to older people (open the door, offer your seat on the bus)
- Never agree to go to a closed location with an unknown person, or someone you just met on the street. Instead, if you want to talk to them, suggest you sit at a nearby sidewalk cafe (more on avoiding common scams here).
- If someone is being overly pushy and you don’t feel comfortable, leave. If they are trying to get you into (or get you to stay in) a shop or restaurant, just go.