Since the January 12th, 2016 killing of German tourists, Istanbul has seen unending terror including attacks, attempted coups and assassinations. One year on the once bustling tourist areas are silent and empty.
All is quiet in the usually bustling souvenir shops in Istanbul's Grand Bazaar, the holiday apartments in the alleys surrounding the Galata Tower are empty and on the square where one year ago an attacker killed twelve German tourists only armed vehicles are parked - apart from a couple of Chinese tour groups no tourists can be seen.
Yavuz Indere has worked as a hotel receptionist in Istanbul for nearly half a century, witnessing coups, unrest and economic crises. But as a string of terror attacks erodes the backbone of Turkey's key tourism sector, Indere admits he has never seen anything like this in the city. "I've been doing this job for 45 years, obviously I've had tough years, but this time it's different," he says, speaking at his tiny hotel in the historic Sultanahmet area, the scene of a deadly attack on January 12 last year that rocked the tourism industry. Yavuz Indere adds, "lots of hotels have suffered and some have even had to close."
On the steep streets in the fashionable Galata quarter, where during the tourist boom several cafés, galleries, designer outlets and second-hand shops opened, not much is happening either. House owners, who had converted their properties into holiday apartments with views of the Bosporus catering to weekend visitors from Europe, are now desperately looking for long term rentals.
The number of foreign visitors to Istanbul has actually fallen, quite significantly, for the first time since the turn of the century. While in 2015 Istanbul tourism authorities registered some 12.4 million visitors that number last year dropped to 9.2 million, a 26 percent decline. Germans, at 10.9 percent still accounted for the biggest group followed by Iranian and Saudi Arabian visitors. But the number of German tourists dropped by 300,000 to just one million.
A long list of terror
Last year Istanbul was the target of several serious attacks. Following the attack on the German tour group in front of the Blue Mosque in Sultanahmet on January 12th, 2016 there was another suicide bomb attack in the main shopping avenue in Istiklal in which three Israelis and an Iranian were killed. In June three suicide bombers attacked the city's main airport, killing 45 people.
On June 15th, 2016 the country was shaken by a failed military coup attempt. Some 240 people were killed in clashes in Istanbul, Ankara and elsewhere between those involved in the coup and government supporters. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reacted to the coup attempt by declaring a state of emergency and launched a crackdown leading to an unprecedented wave of arrests and job losses.
In December a double bombing near the Besiktas football stadium claimed by Kurdish militants killed 46 people, most of them members of the police force. Finally on New Year's Eve on the shores of the Bosporus a gunman stormed Istanbul's glamorous Reina nightclub and killed 39 people. Unlike the preceding attacks, the Jihadist group Islamic State clearly claimed responsibility for the outrage.
"The airport was attacked, Sultanahmet was attacked, then Taksim was attacked, and finally the Reina (nightclub), which for me is an attack on the heart of tourism," said Cetin Gurcun, secretary general of the Association of Turkish Travel Agencies (TURSAB). As most of the victim's of the "Reina" shootings were Middle Eastern tourists there are now fears that following the European example visitors from Arab countries will now opt to stay away.
Security measures have been heightened in the wake of the attacks, with heavily armed police patrolling streets close to the big mosques and on Istiklal Avenue. Tourist guide Umran Aslan said it helped make her feel safer: "They're trying to protect us. I feel better when I see police everywhere". But she admitted it was unlikely to reassure tourists, adding "it's so sad, because I really love my job."
John Plas, a tourist from the Netherlands tells us: "It does worry me but you know, if you do not come, then you let the terrorists win."