The Sun Sets on Backpacking in Turkey

The sun is setting in Fethiye, a small town in the south of Turkey, as boats bob gently on the water under a backdrop of small green hills. Travel season is kicking off here, and some tourists are quietly taking in the view. Through the silence, a few of them start chatting amongst one another.

“They don’t even have alarm clocks”, says a young woman from Canada. “And their showers really suck.”

Another tourist nods in agreement. They are complaining about the sparse accommodation, something that has become common parlance in the new era of budget travel.

Less than ten years ago, backpacking was huge in Turkey. It was mainly driven by one company, Fez Travel, a Turkish owned but Aussie operated outfit that ran a hop-on-hop-off bus circuit around the country. It was fueled by young Aussies and Kiwis who were working in London during their gap years and wanted to come somewhere fun and hot for cheap. And Turkey answered to this. Exploring historic palaces, mountain hiking into ruinous caverns on the Lycian trail, and climbing around volcanic deposits turned houses in Cappadocia; Turkey was a playground full of accommodating people and good times. No one minded sharing a room because it was a good way to get to know others. And no one complained about luke-warm showers because you wouldn’t want to come off as if you didn’t know what being here was all about: Exploring, learning, enjoying, and being grateful for a beautiful experience. Not rating the plumbing.

“It’s different now,” says the owner of a well-established tour operating company. He left backpacking behind years ago and decided to invest in a travel agency that could accommodate a larger breadth of tourist. “There really isn’t any backpacking left here”. His face falls a bit as he thinks about it. “It’s not so good, actually” he adds, and shakes his head.

A middle aged woman shows up late at night at the guesthouse. She looks tired and tells the front desk that someone has been kind enough to guide her to our place because they said they had space for her. There’s a spot left in the only dorm room but she looks exasperated at this. She tells the front desk that she can’t believe that there are no single rooms for her. They tell her she can have a private room, but it will cost three times more than a single bed.

“I thought a single meant a single room”, she says disdainfully.

The Turkish receptionist looks around woefully trying to explain that’s impossible. And of course it is. There’s nowhere in Europe that one would travel to and expect a private single room for less than 10 Euros, but this woman is not alone. Budget travelers are still coming to Turkey, but they are expecting a lot more than their backpacking predecessors. Instead of coming into a hostel and seeing if there’s a lively bar scene to meet other people,  budget travelers now look around the place with fright, announcing loudly at reception that if it’s too loud they’ll leave. Gone are the days of flopping down at a table and asking someone to teach you to play backgammon. Today’s budget traveler in Turkey can be found tucked into a corner on their iphone and booking private tours.

“I’m gonna tell you something”, an old friend tells me, a well-known carpet dealer from the backpacking circuit who now resides in Istanbul “I’m gonna bring back the backpackers”.

He seems earnest, but his statement is total nonsense. In fact, he is currently in the process of converting the space over his massive shop into a trendy apart-hotel, which now litter Istanbul and all of Turkey and cater to the new traveler. Instead of dorm rooms, one can rent private apartment studio spaces. They’re more costly, but very popular. I tell him about a mutual friend of ours who has just turned her gorgeous old apartment, which she used to rent to students, into an apart-hotel and now charges three times what she was earning before, by the night.

“That’s smart,” my friend says” good for her”.

But not so good for any of us, actually. The Turks have rolled with the times, and some of them are making money investing in this new scheme of accommodation, but the cost is high. It’s harder for Turks and foreigners to get to know each other because there’s little common space (literally) to do so. As such, the relationships we forge with one another are based more on money transactions, rather than talking, drinking tea, and actually getting to know one another. I feel grateful for having had those experiences, which have allowed me to return to this country not as a tourist, but as part of an extended family. My old friend wants to bring back the spirit of what we all got to experience back then, but the problem is, budget travelers still exist, it’s just that backpacking is gone.

The Ministry of Turkish Culture and Tourism estimates that in the last ten years, tourism to the country has nearly tripled and generates well over $25 billion annually, while the Turkish government currently has a plan in place to double tourist revenue by 2023 by making it the 5th largest tourism destination in the world. The first hostel I stayed at in Istanbul is now called a guesthouse, and most of the old dorms rooms have been converted into semi-private rooms. The street that was once known as “backpacker’s alley” is now lined with boutique accommodations, cafés, and fancy restaurants and bars. Travelling to Turkey is still an amazing experience, far more luxurious than it ever has been and still relatively affordable in comparison to the rest of Europe. The hostels and tour operators have simply evolved to accommodate a new kind of tourist.

Back on the terrace in Fethiye, I’ve decided I want to go hiking on the Lycian trail tomorrow, which is just in the hills above us. A British man who’s been studying a brochure tells me he can’t decide what to do. I tell him I’m thinking about going up to some of the ruins on a local bus and ask him if he’d like to join me.  He considers it, but then says he can’t imagine the hassle of trying to go exploring on our own. He’s tells me he’s going to stick with getting a tour, if he can just decide which one.  The sun has gone down, and everyone is curling up to their lap tops, or quietly heading for bed.

In the end, one can wax nostalgic about all sorts of things, and certainly I am one to appreciate my own Internet access and some well-deserved rest. There have always been travelers, and tourism is only expanding in Turkey. But without backpacking, I just don’t think it will ever be the same.

Bio: Meghan MacIver is a Canadian writer and media producer. Most of her past work has used photography, video and most commonly, radio to explore her community. Her most recent piece is a radio documentary for CBC about the revival of Carnival in Istanbul. Having just returned to Turkey (a place she considers her second home), she is currently focused on writing about the country now, and her experiences when she lived there as a young woman. She holds an MA in Communication from Simon Fraser University.

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Photo credits:  S J Pinkney, Threedozenpegs,  S J Pinkney, kholekute, Lapost, Meghan MacIver

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