Monday, February 04, 2008

A Low Down Dirty Shame.

I've learnt a valuable lesson in travelling. Not matter how much you love a place it's probably best not to revisit 10 years down the track. Odds are it'll have changed and potentially for the worst.
That's what I discovered when I was in Turkey last month. Overall it's still a great country but tourism has, and is, harming it.

For example Istanbul is a lot more touristy than it was 11 years ago. In 1996 Sultanahmet had only a bare handful of hostels. Now it has dozens and is becoming very like Khao San Road in Bangkok. The character of the area has changed. What was once a nice slice of urban life is now overrun by bars, cafes, hotels, and tacky markets.

Prices are also much higher than they used to be. The Turkish Lira has stabilised and that's good news for the locals who now have some certainty about the value of their wages. But it's not so good for the budget tourist. A decade ago you could comfortably travel Turkey on about $US25 a day. Beers were 60c, a kebab would set you back 75c, and a 800 km bus trip would probably cost you under $20. Today travelling in Turkey costs about as much as it does to travel in NZ. It's cheap compared to most European countries but it's not the bargain it once was. This is also causing problems for the locals. One businessman I spoke to said the new strength of the currency and the higher prices is resulting in a major downturn in tourism.

On the subject of tourism, Turkey's certainly made a few changes. Sites that used to be free, such as the Yerebatan Cistern (below), now have a flat 10 Euro entry charge.

Some places, and Goreme is a good example of this, haven't been overly harmed by the impact of tourism. It remains a beautiful place to visit and is relatively unaffected by pollution. The cave dwellings and rock formations are as dramatic as ever.

However even here there are problems. The owner of one hostel I stayed at told of how unscrupulous operators, trying to make a quick buck out of tourists, are converting thousand year old cave dwellings into hostels. Historical relics that have been preserved intact for hundreds of years are being destroyed so certain people can make a profit. There are penalties for such activities - seven months in jail to be precise - but that's no deterrence given the amount of money people can make out of tourism.

For me the worst thing I saw in Turkey was Pamukkale. 11 years ago this place was the highlight of my trip and was, potentially, one of the most amazing sights I had ever seen. Below is how it looked then (and incidentally how they are still marketing it today).

But the reality is much different. Because local hotels have drawn off much of the mineral water that created the travertine terraces the mineral formations are now dry and dusty with barely a trickle running over them. Bathing in the mineral spring at the top of the cliff, near the ruins of Hierapolis, was once described as swimming in warm champagne. Alas the myriad carbonate bubbles are now gone and the ruined Roman columns in the pool are now clotted with algae and slime. But what's even worse is the impact industrial pollution in the general area has had on the mineral formations themselves. It's become so bad in the past decade that the terraces, once white and pristine, have become yellow and stained.

This is how they look now.

It's a crying shame that this has happened and the Turkish Government should be kicked soundly for letting a place, that is an international treasure, be defiled in this manner.

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