Should Israelis travel to Turkey?

For many, the attractions that Turkey offers will be too enticing to ignore despite the difficult Israel-Turkey relations in recent decades.

 ALANYA AS SEEN from Alanya castle. (photo credit: MICHAEL STARR)
ALANYA AS SEEN from Alanya castle.
(photo credit: MICHAEL STARR)

Passover isn’t just a time of religious rites for Israelis – it’s also a vacation period. This year, as the COVID-19 pandemic recedes and geopolitical tensions thaw, Israelis may choose nearby Turkey as their vacation destination of choice.

Diplomatic relations with Turkey have been difficult in recent decades, but for many, the attractions that Turkey offers will be too enticing to ignore, and the increased tourism may help further engender positive relations with the Anatolian state.

“Since the renewed warming of relations between Turkey and Israel, we are seeing a significant increase in demand for vacations in Turkey, so there is no doubt that this has had an effect,” said Shirley Cohen Urakbi, vice president of Eshet Tours.

Foul relations with Israel

Since Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his AKP Party came into power, Turkey had become increasingly antagonistic to Israel.

 THE RUBI PLATINUM Resort in Antalya, Turkey. (credit: MICHAEL STARR)
THE RUBI PLATINUM Resort in Antalya, Turkey. (credit: MICHAEL STARR)

“I don’t agree with his policies,” one Turkish tour guide told The Jerusalem Post. “They’ve created a rift between our countries.”

In 2010, right-wing Turkish NGO IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation attempted to breach the blockade of Hamas-controlled Gaza by boat, only to be interdicted by Israeli naval forces. When naval commandos attempted to board the Mavi Marmara, one of the vessels in IHH’s flotilla, they were attacked with weapons, and in the engagement several activists were killed. Turkey downgraded diplomatic ties and expelled the Israeli ambassador soon after.

“I went to Turkey once on a business trip, only to the hotel, which was amazing. A few years ago a colleague invited me to come visit her there, and I would have, but then there was the Marmara,” one Israeli tourist said of her experience.

Turkey has also hosted Palestinian terrorists in its territory, and groups such as Hamas have allegedly planned terrorist attacks while operating there.

Talking Turkey with Erdogan

“The diplomatic situation is getting better,” said Cohen Urakbi. “We see that with the visit by [President Isaac] Herzog, and we know that for a while Erdogan has wanted better relations.”

On March 9, Herzog became the first Israeli leader to visit Turkey in over a decade. Erdogan characterized the meeting as a turning point for Israel-Turkey relations.

“Developing relations between Turkey and Israel is of great value for our countries and stability and peace in the region,” said Erdogan. “We are able to contribute to a culture of peace and coexistence in our region.”

The meeting was decried by Hamas and other terrorist organizations. In response to the terrorist wave that began at the end of March, Erdogan condemned “the heinous terror attacks that recently took place in different cities in Israel.”

“I wouldn’t trust them to have actually stopped hosting Hamas,” said Judah Powers, an Israeli soldier, when asked if he would consider visiting Turkey.

Feeling safe in Turkey

The funding and hosting of terrorism still weighs heavily on the minds of Israelis considering visiting Turkey, and the recent detention of Natali and Mordy Oaknin for photographing Erdogan’s presidential palace is a fresh concern.

“We all know what happened to an Israeli couple who made the mistake of posing for a photo,” said Powers, who said he doesn’t want to fund terrorist attacks against Israel with his tourism dollars.

Another Israeli said she “would probably go for a short vacation – relax, food, different scenery – if they weren’t our enemy. I understand why Israelis go, but don’t think they should.”

Other Israelis felt differently.

“My time in Turkey was so enjoyable in fact, I went back most recently a year later to visit again,” said Racheli Aye, a female solo traveler. “It’s so easy to say that the government of Turkey is terrible, that there are terrorists in Turkey, and to be scared of the unknown and what the news tells you. But at the end of the day, humanity comes first.”

Metin Girgin of Destination Services Turkey noted that “when you compare Turkey to our competition, we’re the safest country for tourism, with some of the lowest statistics for crime. Turkey is safe.”

A changing tourism market?

The Turkish tourism market’s condition shows how much Turkey needs Israelis to come back. Antalya, a region with a large tourism industry, was popular with Russian and Ukrainian tourists.

“The Turkish people are seeking Israelis. The Ukraine war has made them look for more customers,” said Cohen Urakbi.

The coronavirus pandemic period has also been harsh on the Turkish tourism industry.

“Relations between Turkey and Israel, and the corona situation in Turkey, which has improved in the meantime, were the main barriers to the return of Israeli tourism to pre-Marmara crisis levels,” said Cohen Urakbi.

Economic peace

Supporters of increased tourism between Israel and Turkey note that it could develop economic bonds and push Turkey to a more cordial position on Israel.

“When we travel and spend money at local shops, local tours and with the local population, we empower them – which doesn’t necessarily mean supporting the government,” noted Aye.

“It is in their interest for the Israelis to return, and the Turkish people in general believe in cooperation and brotherhood between the peoples,” said Cohen Urakbi.

Israel and Turkey are already major trade partners, but according to Eshet Tours, prior to the diplomatic crisis with Turkey, about 850,000 Israelis came each year. This number rapidly receded, but slowly returned as Arab-Israelis began to favor Turkey as a tourist destination. Estimates vary how much Arab-Israelis make up current tourist traffic to Turkey, from 65% to 85%. Having other sectors return would be an economic boon.

“I’m so excited for Israelis to come back,” said Tuncay Ince, director of sales and marketing at Rubi Platinum. “We need each other. We need to rebuild the relationship, and tourism is part of it.”

Birds of a feather

Proponents of increased Israeli travel to Turkey note the cultural similarities between Israelis and Turks, and maintain that increased interactions would help deepen societal bonds.

“Israelis and Turks are like cousins – Turkey is one of the closest nations to Israel in terms of food, culture and the nature of the people,” said Girgin. “When I’m in Israel, I feel at home. It’s the same vice versa. Friends visit each other. We want to visit you guys as well.”

“We see the excitement everywhere in the tourism and hotel providers in Antalya, who are very much looking forward to hosting the Israelis,” said Cohen Urakbi.

Girgin noted that Israeli tourists were regular patrons of local shops and restaurants, unlike other tourists. “They go out, out of the hotels, and see the area.”

“You’re Israeli? Where have you all gone? We hope to see more of you,” asked one Turkish shopkeeper in Alanya, peppering his sentences with Hebrew words.

Another shopkeeper was able to advertise prices of shirts and perfume in intermediate-level Hebrew.

Aye noted how welcome she felt in Turkey: “Everyone that we met along the way treated us like queens. There was an unlimited flow of free tea; literally every shop we passed by would invite us in for tea.”

However, not every Israeli has had such positive encounters. One visitor told the Post how a border control clerk threw his passport on the ground when he saw that he was Israeli.

Is vacation in Turkey a better option than Eilat?

“Turkey, a country half in Europe and half in Asia, offers the best of both worlds. Incredible Middle Eastern/Mediterranean food, tea culture and fantastic hospitality,” said Aye. “You have deserts, salt lakes, mountains, every other kind of nature.”

“It’s a short flight, and has the best value for money, without competition,” said Cohen Urakbi. “The Turkish lira has weakened greatly, which significantly reduces the costs of vacation and shopping.”

The renewed relationship could provide Israelis with a superior option to domestic tourism destinations like Eilat.

Eshet Tours offers packages, including flights and transportation, at five-star all-inclusive hotels, starting at $1200 for a family of four during Passover. Many hotels in Eilat offer similar prices for the same amount of people and time period just for the hotel, which are challenged by massive Turkish hotel complexes full of water parks, sports facilities, restaurants and pools.

The new options may push Eilat’s tourism industry to be more competitive, and offer better deals for Israelis.

“With the departure of corona, more destinations open up, and competition for the Israeli consumer increases. There is no doubt that hotels in Eilat will face tough competition, since a vacation in Antalya will cost an average of several thousand shekels less – if not half as much – per family compared to a parallel vacation in Eilat,” explained Cohen Urakbi.

“Maybe in July and August or the holidays we will not see significant price reductions, but apparently outside the peak of the season there will definitely be an improvement in the offer of hotels in Eilat to Israelis.”

Israelis have a fondness for both quality travel experiences and cheap prices. Ultimately, these factors, rather than politics, may be what matter most, and will bring Israelis back to Turkey.

The writer was a guest of Eshet Tours in Turkey.