One-on-One with Murat Karakus, Director, Turkish Culture & Tourism Office

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  1. [​IMG]This month, ExpertFlyer talks with Murat Karakus, Director of the Turkish Culture and Tourism Office (TCTO), based in New York City. Murat shares the latest and lauded cultural and tourism attractions from this remarkable ancient country. With the oldest known human settlement in the world, Turkey truly represents the cradle of civilization, and many other achievements, including two of the seven ancient wonders of the world; the birthplace of Homer, St. Paul the Apostle, King Midas, among others — And now this bi-continental land pulses as a leading modern day travel destination with a unique blend of traditions, cultures and beauty.

    “Turkey has made giant strides in the past decade by increasing its economy to $US820 billion, making it the 17th largest economy in the world, sixth largest economy compared with EU countries and the sixth most-visited tourist destina-tion in the world behind only France, the United States, China, Spain and Italy.”

    – Murat Karakus, director, Turkish Culture & Tourism Office

    It’s difficult to know where to start when one wants to discover Turkey. There are few destinations with as many “firsts” and “only” descriptors. Let’s start with some of the most historically significant attributes. What do historians fall in love with and clamor to see when visiting Turkey?

    Turkey is considered to be one of the richest and diverse countries in terms of archaeology and is by far the biggest “open air museum” in the world.

    A bridge between the East and West, Turkey has been noted by scholars as the “melting pot” of various peoples and where classical culture was shaped.

    As you mentioned, from the first known urban city settlement of “Çatalhöyük” to the historically famous Troy and from the Ionians (the Anatolian Greeks) to the greatest empires of the world – the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman – many cultures were established and flourished here.pot”.

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    Photo: Turkish Culture & Tourism Office


    As a result of this history, Turkey has 13 sites listed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, including some of the most famous archaeological sites in the world. Another 52 sites have been submitted to UNESCO for World Heritage Listing for further protection of the country’s archeological treasures. In 2014 alone, a total of 518 archaeological projects were underway in Turkey, including 446 excavations and cleaning works, 36 underwater excavations and 96 archaeological surface surveys.

    If I was to select a handful of ruins that really showcase the influence of the various empires that have ruled Turkey, I would suggest the following:

    • Hittite Capital “Hattusas”:
    Hattusas, the capital of the proud and warlike Hittites from the year 2000 B.C. to the year 1180 B.C. Their empire stretched from the Black Sea to Syria. Excavations have uncovered many impressive ruins of Hittite settlements in Anatolia; fascinating artifacts dating from this period are on display in the Ankara, Anatolian Civilizations Museum.

    • The Trojans:
    The legendary city of beautiful Helen and the Wooden Horse, archeological excavations have revealed nine separate periods of settlement at this site, including ruins of city walls, house foundations, a temple and a theater. A symbolic wooden Trojan horse remains at the site today, commemorating the legendary war.

    • Roman Empire:
    Ephesus: As the capital of Roman Asia Minor, Ephesus is still richly endowed with marble temples, mosaics and a 25,000-seat Great Theater. The city, whose wealth and patronage supported its splendid architectural program, was dedicated to the goddess Artemis, and her enormous temple was once considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. St. Paul spoke here, even the Virgin Mary spent her last days here, and ascended to heaven from a neighboring hilltop.

    • Byzantine Marvels:
    Underground Cistern, which was the water source for both the Grand Palace of the Byzantine Emperors and for the Ottomans’ Topkapi Palace. St. Sophia Museum, the masterpiece of Byzantine architecture. Kariye Museum, the old church of St. Saviour in Chora treasuring the marvelous mosaics and frescoes which represent scenes drawn from, the cycle of the life of the Virgin and of Christ which have been restored under the guidance of the Byzantine Institute of Boston.

    • Ottoman Heritage:
    Topkapi Palace Museum, covering 172 acres, Topkapi Palace is a vast assemblage of garden-filled courtyards, richly decorated chambers, kiosks, pools and passageways; the Blue Mosque; the most splendid mosque in the city, built in the early 18th century, distinguished by six slender minarets and walls covered with blue Iznik tiles; the Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent. This is the largest mosque and was built for Suleyman the Magnificent in the 1550′s by the great architect Sinan; Dolmabahçe Palace Built in the mid-19th century by Sultan Abdülmecit which occupies an impressive 2,000-foot waterfront site on the Bosphorus.

    Safety is always a concern for travelers flying abroad. There has been unrest in Turkey over the past couple of years. Is it safe to travel to Turkey in 2015? Are there specific areas that are not safe? What should potential visitors know and heed where threats and warnings are concerned?

    The majority of travel to Turkey is focused in its west, where Istanbul straddles the bridge between Europe and Asia, and where the Mediterranean and Aegean seas provide the experiences that travelers find go synonymous with traveling through European waters. This is far from the areas that experience regional issues beyond the country’s far eastern borders.

    Responsible travelers should always check the official travel advisories of their home country’s relevant government departments. The U.S. Department of State currently has no “Travel Warnings” or “Travel Alerts” issued for Turkey.

    Turkey attracted nearly 37 million visitors in 2014 – an increase of more than 5% over the previous year. What is the biggest draw for tourists — what do they come to see and experience when they visit Turkey?

    Turkey has made giant strides in the past decade by increasing its economy to $US820 billion, making it the 17th largest economy in the world, sixth largest-economy compared with EU countries and the sixth most-visited tourist destination in the world behind only France, the United States, China, Spain and Italy.

    Our country is one of the most diverse destinations in the world, with a richness of history, archeology, unmatched natural beauty and superb gastronomy combined with art and diverse culture that spans the ages yet is at the forefront modern innovation. Few countries have as wide a variety of tourism attractions as Turkey, including – and, perhaps most importantly – its figurative and physical position as a bridge between Eastern and Western cultures that embraces visitors from all corners of the globe.

    Only about 2% of Turkey’s tourists are US nationals. Is the TCTO trying to market more directly to US travelers? Many Americans first experience Turkey through a cruise and wish to return. Our marketing efforts encourage Americans to spend a vacation exploring the many attractions and destinations throughout the country. Our tourism landscape is particularly appealing to:

    • Families who enjoy a combination of a cultural experience, outdoor activities and miles of beautiful beaches

    • Couples from young couples and honeymooners to boomers

    • Archeology buffs who explore the matchless ruins throughout the country, ancient palaces and mosques, and matchless museums

    • Sportsmen who enjoy the golf, ski areas, yachting, hiking, mountain biking, ballooning.

    We have allocated tourism funds and endeavors to create compelling and successful marketing, advertising and PR campaigns in North America. We are also working very closely with our tourism partners, travel agents and tour operators to sell Turkey. We hope this will continue to help increase the number of North American visitors to Turkey in the near future.

    When Americans think of travel to Turkey, Istanbul is the place that immediately comes to mind. We educate North American travelers about the exciting diversity of landscapes, attractions and experiences throughout Turkey and encourage them to extend their visits and explore the other fascinating regions, such as: Central Anatolia – Cappadocia, Ankara; Aegean region – Izmir, Kusadasi, Bodrum, Cesme, Mediterranean and Black Sea regions of Turkey.

    For first-timers traveling to Turkey, what’s your recommended site-seeing and shopping itinerary?

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    Photo: Turkish Tourism and Culture Office


    Turkey’s multi-faceted tourism assets appeal to many U.S. travelers, who are particularly interested in Turkey’s history and archaeology, culture, gastronomy and the arts. They also enjoy family travel, resorts and beaches, romance and honeymoons, health/wellness, spas, natural wonders, sports (golf, skiing, yachting, ballooning) and religious travel.

    • Istanbul is a fascinating blend of old and new, with some of the most famous ancient palaces and mosques, traditional bazaars and hamams and incredible art and history museums combined with gourmet restaurants and lively nightlife, cruises on the Bosphorus, luxurious hotels, world class spas and trendy boutiques.

    • Cappadocia – spectacular natural wonders, cave hotels, underground cities and ancient cliff churches, hot air ballooning; superb cuisine and wineries.

    • Ruins near Izmir/Kusadasi including Ephesus, Pergamon, Aphrodisias, Miletus, Didyma, Priene

    • Bodrum: To American travelers, the “resort peninsula” that is the Bodrum region might be the best-kept secret in the world. Along with its “sister resort region” of Antalya, Bodrum is one of the most popular “sun and fun” destinations for Turks and foreigners alike, offering luxurious accommodations in a setting that both respects the area’s fishing village past and revels in its jetsetting present. It’s no wonder why Bodrum has been a vacation spot for A-List celebrities such as Tom Hanks, Beyonce Knowles, Sting, Elizabeth Hurley and Nicole Kidman.

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    Photo: Turkish Culture & Tourism Office


    • Vibrant cuisine, wines, and nightlife: A fusion of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern dishes, Turkish cuisine is considered among the best in the world featuring Turkish tea, Turkish coffee and the famous Turkish delight found all over the country.

    • Shopping: Authentic carpets, rugs, and kilims are tourists’ favorite items for shopping in Turkey, with more artistic features and creativity in Turkish Carpets than any other carpets in the world. Turkey’s capital, Ankara, is home to one of the largest bazaars in the world and Istanbul is known for its Grand Bazaar. More than just carpets, however, Turkey’s bazaars have jewelry, leather goods, pottery, spices and tea. Visitors also enjoy the fashionable boutiques with designer clothing and decorative housewares.

    • Sophisticated resorts, miles of beaches and quaint villages along the Aegean, Mediterranean and Black Sea coasts

    • Turkey also offers unique experiences such as Turkish Bath and the Whirling Dervishes: Turkey is among the top seven countries in the world and ranks 2nd in Europe with its 1,300 thermal springs. The Turkish bath, or hamam, is the quintessential Turkish experience and is an absolute must to relax. A Turkish Spa is a favorite among tourists as it combines traditional hamam experience with Far Eastern touches like aromatic scents and traditional Turkish massages. The Whirling Dervishes is one of the world’s most intriguing sights, a mesmerizing spectacle of twirling delight.

    Where can folks find the best deals and is there a trick to haggling with vendors?

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    Photo: Turkish Tourism and Culture Office


    Haggling with vendors is one of the best parts of shopping in Turkey. Some of the top tips to help travelers haggle with respect and get the best deal include:

    • First, determine if haggling is appropriate: Are you in a luxury department store or in an outdoor market or bazaar?

    • What is it worth to you? An item is only worth what you would pay for it. Discounts don’t mean anything if it’s still more than you want to pay for it.

    • Figure out the lowest price: That last amount yelled out as you leave and turn the corner is often the best price you’ll get.

    • Obey the rules and don’t hurry: There is no rush to haggling. Bid carefully, if the price is too much, leave and don’t worry about having wasted a merchant’s time. That’s their job and they’re very good at it.

    Where do Turkish families vacation in Turkey and what’s your favorite destination?

    Turkish families visit Antalya , Bodrum, Izmir and environs. My favorite family vacation place in Turkey is Marmaris.

    • Antalya: Antalya, the Turkish Riviera is the most stunning part of Turkey’s Mediterranean coast. Beautiful beaches, historic ruins and charming old towns make Antalya one of Turkey’s most popular provinces. The region around Antalya offers sights of amazing natural beauty as well as impressive historical remains such as Perge, originally settled by the Hittites around 1500 B.C., the place with the impressive colonnaded street where most of the statues that are on display in the Anatolia Museum were unearthed.; Aspendos that bears one of the best preserved amphitheaters in the world; Demre: Also known as Kale, the ancient city of Myra, is mostly famous for its connection with St. Nicholas, who was bishop here in the 4th century.
    • Izmir: No trip to Turkey is complete without including a visit to Izmir – the perfect hub to enjoy the full range of attractions that lure visitors to Turkey – a cosmopolitan and accessible city, the most spectacular archeological wonders in Turkey, fantastic seaside restaurants, dynamic nightlife, beautiful beaches and a warm Turkish welcome.

    Is there anything that you’d like to tell our readers that we haven’t covered in this Q&A?

    Traveling to Turkey from the U.S. is easy, Turkish Airlines and Delta Air Lines offer direct flights from the major cities of the U.S.

    • Turkish Airlines, “Best Airline in Europe,” currently flies non-stop direct flights from New York, Washington D.C., Los Angles, Chicago, Houston, Boston, Toronto and it will launch a new route from San Francisco to Istanbul beginning April 13, 2015.

    • Delta Air Lines will increase the number of seats it offers on the Istanbul and New York, JFK flight for the 2015 summer season.

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