The US Has Loosened Its Travel Warning for Istanbul. Does That Mean It’s Any Safer?

Here’s what it means.

On October 29 of last year, in an alarming move, the US government ordered direct family members of US consulate employees to leave Istanbul. Now, that decision has been terminated.

The US government notes that some restrictions on travel for consulate employees and their families remain, as well as in parts of southern Turkey. Click here, to read the full advisory.

But so far, so good. After a year-and-a-half-long string of attacks, a coup attempt and wave-upon-wave of stomach-churning uncertainty, even the tiniest bit of good news is great to hear. 

So what does this mean for travelers?

I can’t claim to have any access to intelligence as the US government does, but I do have first-hand experience living here as a regular person (by which I mean not a diplomat). So here’s my take on the current situation, in regular, non-diplomatic language:

1. Travel warnings can sound scary, but keep in mind the US government is not taking any chances.

The US government is serious about security, and they don’t want to risk putting diplomats in harm’s way. The political fallout is just too big (remember Benghazi?) and the America’s diplomatic buildings are just too prominent.

2. At the same time, Istanbul has had several terror attacks in the last year. So you’re not wrong to be cautious. 

Istanbul is generally safe. I mean it — I’m not trying to sell you snake oil. The thing is, on some very rare occasions, it is extremely dangerous. In the same way that being shot to death is an unlikely but possible situation if you’re visiting a big American city, in Istanbul, if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, you can get caught in a terror attack. God forbid, it’s a real possibility, but it’s much less likely than violent crime in your average big American city.

3. The important thing is to be cautious in crowded areas.

Be alert, and understand that popular hotspots in the city are the most dangerous place you’re likely to encounter. I’m not saying you shouldn’t go, but try and limit the time you spend on the biggest, most prominent landmarks. Last year, for instance, there were attacks on Istiklal Avenue and Sultanahmet Square. I still pass by these places on a regular basis. But I don’t tend to linger. And I don’t walk in these places every day, all day long. 

Think of trips to these places like not wearing your seatbelt. In all honesty, you’ll probably be fine if you don’t. But there’s always the chance you won’t be. Which is why, if it’s not too much trouble, you should wear a seatbelt. But there may be times where you didn’t. And you’re still OK. Do you see what I mean?

4. Be aware of the heightened tension. 

The US may have loosened its warning for Istanbul, but that doesn’t mean the current situation isn’t volatile. There is a siege mentality resulting from the recent coup attempt, the ongoing fighting in Turkey’s southeast, and Turkey’s worsening ties with Europe.

To add to the existing psychological tension, there is an upcoming vote on whether to transition from a parliamentary system to a presidential one. The stakes are high, with one side feeling it has a once-in-a-generation chance to make Turkey a mighty and powerful country, and the other side feeling that it’s on the verge of one-man rule under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. From now until mid-April there will be buses driving around the streets and kiosks blaring songs in support of one campaign or the other. And after the referendum, whichever side wins, the implications will be huge. 

I’m not necessarily saying that a major attack will happen or that the political implications of this vote will affect you, but the tension will likely be palpable. 

No matter when you visit, it’s extreme, but it’s not crazy, to keep some cash on you and have an exit plan, just in case. It doesn’t need to be detailed. Just keep the number of your consulate on hand.

5. Keep a low profile. Not in a hardcore James Bond kind of way. Just don’t be a fussy foreigner. 

As in traveling to any other non-Western country where people don’t wear baseball caps and you won’t constantly hear Taylor Swift or Bruno Mars on the radio, you don’t want to stick out too much. Don’t yell out loud in English about your nationality, or make broad-brush comments about Turks and Turkey. Be aware that shorts look weird in conservative neighborhoods. Don’t expect people to speak fluent English, and be ready to bargain if someone tries to make an extra buck out of you in a touristy area. 

Admittedly, it can be harder to lay low in if you are obviously foreign (read: black, Asian or pale, blonde and blue eyed). But the calmer and cooler you are, the more you read the cues around you, the less likely it is you will be messed with. 

6. Have fun and don’t be a downer. 

Yes, there’s terrorism but that doesn’t mean it’s all doom and gloom. I’ll leave you with what I wrote to a friend after returning to Turkey from abroad. I wrote it about a year ago, but I think it still describes the situation well:

To be honest, I was a little scared coming back, but then I took one look at the water, and at my surroundings, and I knew I made the right decision. Turkey during the summer, between the food, and the colors, and the late nights (you can stay out until 1 or 2 and it’ll be hopping) is amazing. There may be less tourism, I don’t know. I imagine there is less. But it doesn’t feel anything like a ghost town. At all. The only thing that is different, again, is that there is the sense an attack will happen again, at some point, somewhere, and it’s more likely that will be in a crowded tourist spot.

That just about sums it up.