LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Now to Turkey, there's good news for brave travelers who ignore the travel warnings and show up in Turkey this spring. They'll get easy access to the country's most popular sites. But part of the bad news for Turks is that recent problems like terrorist attacks have meant a very slow tourism season. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports.
PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Two years ago, I dragged a Turkish author and lover of all things Byzantine to the Hagia Sophia, a sixth-century church now a museum that ranks among the top destinations for visitors. But he took one look at the mass of humanity blocking the entrance and decided to do the interview outside. But this year, the change is astonishing.
The square in front of the Hagia Sophia is almost empty. A lonely seller of roasted chestnuts and corn calls it the worst he's seen. Tourism contributes some $30 billion a year, about 4 percent of Turkey's economy.
But Turks say tourism revenue will be down sharply this year. A massive ongoing migrant crisis, a bitter feud with Russia and, perhaps most damaging of all, a series of deadly terrorist attacks, including one right here in the heart of Istanbul's old city, have visitor numbers plummeting.
A few are you still coming, including Australian Amanda O'Callaghan She can laugh about it now, but says her family seriously considered canceling after the most recent suicide bombings.
AMANDA O'CALLAGHAN: We did. We discussed it a lot (laughter).
KENYON: And what made the decision for you? How did you...
O'CALLAGHAN: Well, luckily, the last two that went off we'd already paid most of our money. So - and we weren't going to get it back so (laughter)...
KENYON: It's a very practical decision.
O'CALLAGHAN: It was (laughter).
KENYON: Now that you're here, what do you think? Are you glad you came?
O'CALLAGHAN: Oh, yes, of course. It's fantastic, something I have wanted to do for 20 years, I suppose (laughter).
KENYON: The O'Callaghans wander off among colorful beds of flowers as musicians celebrating the annual tulip festival strike up a tune. The band's lucky to have the gig. All around them idle tour guides, bus drivers and waiters on extended cigarette breaks wonder how close they are to being laid off.
Several major cruise lines have altered their itineraries to avoid Istanbul. That means several thousand visitors a day are going elsewhere. Turkish media report that hundreds of hotels, possibly more than a thousand, are up for sale, especially along the Aegean coast, where a Russian ban on holidays in Turkey is taking a heavy toll. The signs of the slowdown are everywhere at the historic Istanbul market known as the heart of the Turkish economy since Ottoman times, the Grand Bazaar.
The bazaar is a maze of galleries, cafes and shops. At the Adnan and Hasan carpet store, longtime rug seller Erol Avci says, sure, he'll answer a few questions if he can quiz the reporter, too.
EROL AVCI: We can ask you questions also?
KENYON: Yes. Would I like to buy something?
AVCI: No. Can we come to America and try to sell rugs?
AVCI: This is the new things now.
KENYON: Is it?
KENYON: Avci knows dealers who spent the entire winter selling in America. He may go there himself. This shop has been here for nearly 40 years, and he's never seen things this bad. No really, he says, that's not the salesman talking.
AVCI: It is a custom for a vendor to cry all the time. No business, oh, it's OK, you know. If you make a million dollar turnover that month you say, OK, no complaints. But this is really to cry.
KENYON: These are the real tears.
KENYON: Like farmers anxiously searching the sky for rain clouds, these Turks are wondering how long this tourist drought will last. And can they hang on until it's over? Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.
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