Turkey’s Cappadocia is known for whimsical images of flocks of hot air balloons rising over a landscape—a scene that looks as though it would be at home in a Salvador Dalí painting.
But when Australian photographer Patricia Sofra made her way to the longstanding tourism hub and UNESCO World Heritage site in central Turkey in September 2017, she found a lonelier picture than she envisioned: A single balloon hanging over a swirling landscape of ridges and gullies below.
“It was completely deserted when I went, because tourism had just come to a complete standstill,” Sofra says. “I thought the sky would be full of balloons, and it turned out we were the only balloon up there.” She remembers the surreal moment as they glided through the air—the tour group members began taking selfies, and the guide looked down at the nearly empty sky and began to cry.
Turkey’s tourism industry has recently been bouncing back after a major drop-off two years ago spurred by security and political concerns. The falling Turkish lira has helped the recovery, making the country an increasingly attractive destination to budget-conscious tourists and as a shopping destination. But it remains to be seen if the recovery will continue or if ongoing domestic political issues and turmoil in the region will deal the country and its tourism industry another blow.
One of Istanbul's most popular tourist sites, the Sultan Ahmet Mosque–commonly known as the Blue Mosque–was built in the early 17th century.
Sofra, like many prospective Western tourists in recent years, had been simultaneously drawn to the country—with its rich culture and unique natural landscapes—and unsure about safety.
In the end, she decided to book a spot on a hop-on hop-off tourist bus traveling through southern Turkey and to Cappadocia. She shared the small bus with three other solo female travelers, the driver, and a chaperone.
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“Traveling through the blue waters of Fethiye, to the tree houses of Olympos, and onto the mountains of Cappadocia via empty side roads, citrus trees, gas stations and dusty fruit stalls, it was quite evident along the way we were the only bus in sight,” she wrote in her travel journal.
Tourism in Turkey took a nosedive beginning in late 2015, in the wake of a series of terrorist attacks in the country, including one in June 2016 targeting Ataturk Airport and another early on New Year’s Day 2017 at a popular nightclub in Istanbul. A failed coup attempt in July 2016 also led to a wide-ranging government crackdown on opponents of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and an ongoing political tightening.
A political dispute with Russia—traditionally one of the major sources of foreign tourists to Turkey—broke out in late 2015 after Turkish fighter jets shot down a Russian war plane near the Syrian border. Russia slapped Turkey with sanctions and a travel ban as a result, further cutting into visitor numbers.
On the Rebound?
According to Turkey’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism, the total number of foreign visitors entering Turkey plummeted from 36.2 million in 2015 to 25.4 million in 2016—a drop of 30 percent. Tourism from the United States fell more than 40 percent from 2015 to 2017, according to the New York Times, which notes a particular reluctance among Western travelers. But now, after a period of relative calm, tourists are returning. In 2017, the number of foreign visitors had rebounded to 32.4 million, with increased popularity among tourists from Russia, Asia and the Middle East.
The Association of Turkish Travel Agencies predicted earlier this year that the number would climb to 40 million in 2018, bringing $30 billion in revenue, according to the state-run Andolu Agency.
The latest statistics from July 2018 showed numbers reaching or exceeding pre-crisis levels. In that month, 5.6 million foreign visitors entered the country, compared to 3.5 million in the same month in 2016. In 2015, the number was 5.5 million. The largest share of foreign tourists came from Russia, followed by Germany and the United Kingdom. The Association of British Travel Agents listed the country as one of the trending destinations for British tourists in 2018.
As for Sofra, she said she carried back with her a new love for the Turkish people.
In her travel journal, she wrote that she would remember “the delicateness and the passion for family and friends, the simplicity of their wholesome cuisine, the peaceful mornings and nights watching the golden sun, the hard work ethic with no complaints, the electricity released as they danced to any music at any time, even without an audience.”