Is Turkey safe to visit?

Greg Dickinson
Turkey has launched a cross-border assault in Syria – what does this mean for tourists? - Igor Zhuravlov

Last week Turkey launched a cross-border offensive on Kurdish-held areas of northern Syria, prompting the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) to update its advice for British travellers.

More than 200,000 people have been displaced and more than 100 civilians have been killed in the attacks that the Turkish Defence Ministry has labelled Operation Peace Spring. 

This week the US brokered a ceasefire between Turkish and Kurdish forces, which has largely held, although there have been reports of continued shelling and small arms fire in the town of Ras al-Ain.

The number of visitors to Turkey fell in 2016 following a string of deadly terrorist attacks and a failed military coup, but the country has seen a resurgence in the last two years.

Now, as tensions simmer on the Syrian border, is it still safe to go there?

What is going on in Turkey?

Turkey moved troops into northern Syria on October 9 after President Donald Trump pulled US forces out of the region. Some argue that the US withdrawal gave Turkey the green light to launch a cross-border assault.

The Turkish Defence Ministry says it wants to create a “safe zone” running for 480km (300 miles) on the Syrian side of the border, which would be free of Kurdish militias and create a place for Syrian refugees to live.

In a tweet the ministry said troops were advancing east of the Euphrates river, and claimed that “designated targets were seized”.

The attacks have prompted condemnation from the international community, and human rights groups have said that more than 200,000 civilians have been displaced by the fighting.

There are also concerns that thousands of suspected IS prisoners, including many foreign nationals, are being guarded in camps by Kurdish-led forces and have been released as a result of the offensive.

Amnesty International said Friday that Turkey and its Syrian rebel allies had “displayed a shameful disregard for civilian life” and committed “serious violations and war crimes” during the course of the offensive. 

A ceasefire deal was announced on Thursday night after hours of talks between Mr Erdoğan and Mr Pence. Under the agreement Turkish troops will stop attacking for 120 hours while Kurdish forces withdraw away from the border. Once the withdrawal is complete, Turkey will call an overall halt to its military operation. In return, the US has agreed to withdraw sanctions it imposed on Turkey earlier in the week. 

Is it safe to travel to Turkey?

For the large part, yes. But there are areas where the Foreign Office warns against all travel, and some areas where they warn against all but essential travel.

The Foreign Office states: “If you’re in provinces bordering Syria, you should remain vigilant and keep up to date with developments via local media and this travel advice.”

The FCO advises against all travel to areas within 10km (six miles) of the Syrian border, except the city of Kilis. They also advise against all but essential travel to all other areas of Sirnak, Kilis (including the city of Kilisy) and Hatay provinces, plus the provinces of Diyarbakir, Tunceli and Hakkari.

The FCO advises that those working in humanitarian aid work or journalism are particular targets for kidnappings around the border areas. 

“Terrorist groups operating in Syria, including Daesh and AQ-linked groups, routinely use kidnapping as a tactic. They’re present in the Syrian border areas and you should be particularly vigilant if you are in these locations.”

The FCO map (as of October 2019) Credit: Foreign and Commonwealth Office (gov.uk)

Is there a terror threat in Turkey?

In 2016 there were 16 terror attacks in Turkey. The last major attack attributed to Isis was at a nightclub in Istanbul on New Year’s Eve 2016, killing 39 people and injuring 69.

While it has been nearly three years since a major terror attack in Turkey, the Foreign Office advises: “Terrorists are very likely to try to carry out attacks in Turkey.

“Most terrorist attacks have taken place in the south and east of the country and in Ankara and Istanbul. While there is a potential that citizens from western countries may be targets or caught up in attacks, particularly in the major cities, attacks are most likely to target the Turkish state, civilians and demonstrations.”

“Attacks could be indiscriminate, affecting public buildings, major events or large public gatherings. Be vigilant around significant religious occasions and public holidays; terrorist groups sometimes call for attacks around these times.”

The FCO adds that previous methods of attack have included: “Armed assaults, suicide bombings, car bombings and rocket attacks and improvised explosive devices left in refuse bins, crowded areas and on public transport. Be vigilant, monitor media reports and keep up to date with this travel advice.”

It also says that there’s a heightened risk of terrorist attack against the aviation industry in Turkey. 

Turkey is the sixth most popular tourist destination in the world Credit: iStock

Are tourists still going to Turkey?

They are indeed – in their droves. Tourism dropped dramatically following the heightened terror threat and the attempted military coup in 2016, falling from 39.5 million in 2015 to 30.3 million in 2016. However, numbers have since reached record levels – in 2018, more than 45 million tourists travelled to Turkey. 

This places Turkey sixth in the world’s most visited countries, after France (93.2m), Spain (82.8m), the US (82.2m), China (62.9m) and Italy (62.1m). The UK receives 35.1m tourists per year.

British nationals made more than 2.3 million visits to Turkey in 2018. The FCO notes that most visits are trouble free, and the vast majority visit Mediterranean resorts hundreds of miles from the border with Syria. However, research for Telegraph Travel in July 2019 suggested that British holidaymakers remain concerned about the safety of travel to Turkey.

Analysing Google searches for questions that begin with “is it safe to travel to...”, data analytics company SEMrush found that this year Britons have searched more regularly about the dangers of visiting Turkey than any other country. 

Can I cancel my holiday?

You can, but you will have to pay any extra costs you incur. Travel companies are not obliged to offer free cancellation or repatriation unless the FCO advises against travel. However, it is worth checking with the company you booked with as it may permit you to change your itinerary or travel at a later date, depending on its terms and conditions. 

Some hotels may also allow you to postpone your booking, but refund are not normally offered unless there is a free cancellation clause.

Will my travel insurance cover any losses if I don't travel?

Not usually. Travel insurance normally excludes costs associated with such instability.