While many Americans have hesitated to return, visitors from Iran and elsewhere have poured into the country. In 2017, 2.5 million Farsi-speaking tourists arrived in Turkey, a 50 percent increase over the previous year. Turkey shares a 310-mile land border with Iran, and on June 18, train service from the northwestern Iranian city of Tabriz resumed to the Turkish border town of Van after being halted three years ago following a bomb attack.
And the increasing numbers of visitors from Kuwait, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia has resulted in wider availability of halal food and Farsi- and Arab-language menus.
“In Istanbul, a vast number of shops, restaurants and cafes have opened up that cater specifically to Middle Eastern tourists,” said Paul Osterlund, a New Mexico native who has worked as a journalist in Istanbul for five years.
And while the sights and inexpensive shopping in Turkey are part of the appeal for this new sector, it’s the nation’s relaxed attitudes toward alcohol and female dress that make it a particularly appealing getaway for Muslim visitors who want to let loose. Middle Eastern medical tourists — particularly those in search of cut-rate hair transplant surgeries — are also realizing that Turkish doctors offer procedures at attractive prices.
But whether or not the cafes and shops are full, Turkey feels irrevocably changed, said Mr. Osterlund. “The sporadic violence and horror of 2016 is gone, [but] the air remains thick with political tension,” he said.
For guides who cater specifically to English-speaking tourists, times remain tough. Ansel Mullins co-founded Culinary Backstreets, his now-global gastronomic tour company, from Istanbul in 2009. The company (which employs Mr. Osterlund as a freelance writer) now runs English-language food tours in 13 international cities, but Mr. Mullins said that interest in his Istanbul offering fell 80 percent from 2015 to 2016. Numbers are creeping back up in 2018, but have yet to fully rebound. Tour groups as a whole from Western nations are not returning to Turkey yet, he said.
Independent travelers are, though, and they seem less concerned about the nation’s political alliances. Mr. Mullins draws a comparison to Egypt, another nation that has suffered terrorism and government instability. “There are places that have timeless beauty, and that can often trump who’s in power.”
For Mr. Aykac, however, that uptick may not come soon enough. Frustrated by a lack of work, and rising inflation, he plans to leave Istanbul in the next few years. But he’ll stay in Turkey, he said. “Turkey is the highlight of all the countries in the world,” he said. “You can find anything here. But with the political situation and the economics, we are releasing every last knot in our belts. We are now coming down to the last hole, and it’s unbearable.”