“I receive emails from old customers wishing me to stay safe and sending me their prayers”
Manzer Abbas, known simply as “Mahmoud” by the Turkish shopkeepers who inhabit an ancient street of Istanbul’s Old City, hails from Lahore, Pakistan. He learned Turkish in about six months and now tends Mustafa’s Soap Shop. He’s a friendly salesman, often greeting other shopkeepers, joking with them, and helping whenever he can. He enjoys his work, inviting his customers to explore the 150 varieties of all-natural soaps, but if business doesn’t improve, the once optimistic 23-year-old will have to move back to Lahore.
“Since December 2016, sales (have) dropped,” says Abbas hovering his hands over the burning hot wire cage of his electric heater. He remembers the days when the workday would bring in 1000 Turkish liras (US$265). Now he sells about 100 liras (US$26.50) on good days.
“I have sold 5TL (US$1.33) in the last three hours,” he says. “If it continues like this, we will close the shop.”
Abbas in his soap shop
In 2016, the number of foreign tourists visiting Istanbul declined to 9.2 million, which is a 25.9 percent decrease compared to the previous year. Last year, Turkey suffered 19 attacks that killed more than 200 people at the hands of different terrorist groups. On January 1, just a few hours into 2017, an armed assailant entered one of Istanbul’s elite nightclubs, killed 39 attendees, and left more than 69 injured. A few days later, on January 6, another attack outside of a courthouse in tourist hub Izmir killed two people.
The sharpest decline in tourism took place in June 2016, the same month a gun attack and a bomb attack in Istanbul’s Atatürk airport killed 41 people and injured more than 230.
Abbas, who speaks with the confidence of a business owner, explains that the soap business relies on tourists to stay afloat. Since the New Year’s attack on Istanbul’s nightclub, the soap shop has seen no tourists—only locals, who usually buy one bar of soap compared to the 20 or so bars that tourists can buy all at once. Furthermore, the shop’s regular customers from Saudi Arabia, Greece, and Germany are postponing their trips to Turkey. Abbas says they’ve told him that they may be back in a few months—maybe.
Mohamed Rashed, 26, from Kayseri in central Anatolia, speaks six languages and has been working in Turkey’s tourism industry for seven years. Selling sweets and Turkish delight inside Istanbul’s famous spice bazaar, he has seen Turkey’s tourism industry unravel before his eyes. When asked whether he fears working in an industry that relies almost entirely on tourism, Rashed answered, “It is my work, I need to work and if I die here, God is writing everything, we are just playing the game.”
Rashed tending to the goods in his spice shop
Every year, Rashed gets a 20 percent raise, but this year he won’t receive one. Despite the hardships, Rashed is opposed to switching professions. “Everywhere is the same,” he says simply, signifying that he wouldn’t be immune to the financial hardships if he were to get a new job.
A few meters away from the spice bazaar, Jimmy Salcuk, 45, tries to count the number of businesses that have closed down inside the labyrinth-like Grand Bazaar in the last year. “The silver shop over there had been here since 1959,” he says in perfect English, pointing to an empty lot. “The pashmina guy over there had been here 20 years. Also Fez Café and the ceramic guy, they are all gone.”
Salcuk has run a successful jewelry business since 1988 and can only think of the First Gulf War as a time when Turkey’s tourism industry was hit as badly as it was in the last year. “But it (the impact) only lasted four months,” a short span of time compared to the current slump.
“I can only survive one more year if it continues like this,” he adds. “If I had opened three years ago, I would have closed down (by now). I receive emails from old customers wishing me to stay safe and sending me their prayers.”
Salcuk in the jewelry shop he’s owned since 1988
Turkey’s tourism industry is not the only one that has been hit by the political instability and the deteriorating security situation. On Tuesday, the Turkish lira hit a historic low of 3.7790 against the U.S. dollar. Since the start of 2017, the lira has lost 4.7 percent, a reality that reflects the uncertainty of the Turkish market.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has urged citizens to convert their foreign exchange into gold or Turkish liras, but the opposite has been happening because of the instability of the lira.
“Businessmen want clear and predictable markets,” says Baris Ince, editor in chief at BirGun, a Turkish daily. “Turkey needs stable foreign policy and economic policies.”
Back in the Grand Bazaar, Salcuk explains in stark terms the relationship between Turkey’s turbulent foreign policy and the security situation. “Terrorism is killing us,” he says. “The government opened a box they were not supposed to have opened,” he says, hinting at Turkey’s presence in Syria and treatment of Turkey’s Kurds. “It will not stop here. It will happen again and again.”
Outside of the soap shop where Abbas is working, an old man walks past the doorless shop. The old man asks about the price of the soap, and Abbas answers that it costs five Turkish liras. The old man makes a face of disgust and drops the soap, muttering angrily to himself. “He is a poor man and can’t buy soap,” stressed Abbas. “But I can’t (afford to) give him the soap for free.”