Our vacation this year was a two part affair that included a four day stay in Istanbul and four and a half days in Malta.
In Istanbul we planned to stay at the Grand Hyatt which is located in the city’s Taksim area, the commercial and entertainment heart of Istanbul. At the time of our stay, Istanbul was still in a state of unrest with many demonstrations taking place in and around Taksim Square over the fate of Gezi Park. In late May, demonstrators initially organized a small Occupy Wall Street-style protest against government plans to bulldoze the park and replace it with a shopping mall. Some of the clashes were quite violent and the police regularly used tear gas and water cannons to control the demonstrators.
Safety while traveling is always a concern and there had been travel warnings issued by the State Department for travel to Turkey. I read and kept up with the news daily for weeks prior to our departure. While most of the violent demonstrations appeared to be taking place in Ankara, there were still almost daily police and protestor confrontations taking place near the hotel. Prior to the trip I contacted the Hyatt Concierge on FlyerTalk with questions and concerns and, at his suggestion, I also wrote a letter to the Concierge at the hotel prior to our arrival to inquire about the situation around the hotel. The hotel Concierge’s reply was very reassuring and although he did not deny or downplay the fact that the demonstrations were still happening, he did state that the location of the hotel was pretty much removed from the ‘action’. Both contacts were incredibly helpful and as such, helped to cement our decision not to alter our travel plans. It was a good decision.The rear entrances to the hotel were also kept locked in order to prevent protestors from entering the hotel as had happened at the Hilton (Protestors and Police Enter Hilton).
There was a security gate at the front for all cars and taxis entering which was manned with a security guard 24 hours a day. When we arrived, our vehicle was checked with an under-carriage mirror before the barrier was raised and the bollards were lowered to allow our vehicle to enter. I felt the hotel was doing the maximum to keep its guests safe. Even though the protest was as close as across the street from the hotel, the protestors were peaceful and the police stationed on the opposite corner were watchful. Pedestrians and tourists made their way along the sidewalks with no problem whatsoever.
I believe it is important to consider safety when traveling, but I also believe that over-concern should not dictate the parameters of a vacation. Awareness is the key. While we were out and about, we were more concerned with the possibility of encountering a pickpocket or scam artist than we were about being caught up or swept away in a demonstration. Most of our days out were spent either in Old Town or Kadıköy. It was only as we made our way to the Metro Station that we even had to walk through Taksim Square and there were no issues at all. Typically the demonstrations did not begin until six in the evening and by that time we were back at the hotel from our sightseeing, safely ensconced in the Grand Club at the Hyatt. There was only one occasion when we actually observed the police and protestors clash and we watched from the safety of the lounge eight floors up.
Surprisingly, the day we decided to take the ferry over to Kadıköy, on the Asian shore of the Bosphorus, there was a demonstration taking place and we landed right in the middle of it as we exited the ferry terminal. It appeared to be well organized, however, with a lot of flag waving, a few speeches, chanting and ultimately marching around the major streets. After watching for a while, we skirted around the back of it and made our way to the Market area for a cup of Turkish coffee.
We were in Istanbul on the day when Gezi Park was first re-opened to the public after weeks of being closed. It is a beautiful green area and we could certainly understand why the citizens of Istanbul did not want to see it turned into a shopping mall or cultural center.
So, the take from all of this is that if there is a ‘situation’ in the country you plan to visit, do your homework. Check the State Department website, the hotel or other contacts where you are visiting, post questions on social media or forums in order to decide what is best for you. Be cautious and aware, but do not let fear control your decision. In the end, you don’t return home congratulating yourself on the caution you exercised. You will return home full of memories of another great vacation.
Have you ever traveled to a country where there was civil unrest? How did you make your decision whether to go or not to go?