TO the surprise of almost everyone in the travel industry, Turkey welcomed a near record number of 500,000 American tourists in 2006, even more than in the heady travel days before 9/11.
That's as it should be: Turkey is a colorful and friendly destination that is ranked among the 10 most popular nations for tourism. It receives more than 20 million tourists a year.
Among that group, American visitors are especially valued. Unlike European visitors, many of whom buy inexpensive air-and-land packages to the Mediterranean and Aegean beach resorts of Turkey, Americans seek out the culture and history of the country and spend far more than the average European. And although the decline of the American dollar (now exchanged at about 1.4 Turkish lire to $1) has made Turkey more expensive than before, it remains a moderately priced tourist destination. Family-run boutique hotels are available for $100 to $140 a night for a double room. Accommodations at unpretentious private hostels often can be had for $20 per person per night.
But is it safe? For the answer, I phoned Tom Brosnahan, author of a Turkey blog called www.turkeytravelplanner.com and the author of Lonely Planet and Frommer guides on Turkey. Brosnahan visits the country frequently. He emphasized that the animosity we think others feel toward American policies and the war in Iraq is not evident in Turkey. Though Turkey has had occasional violence, it is no more roiled by those events than any other nation in Western or Eastern Europe, he says.
The nation itself is secular, despite the electoral victory several years ago by an Islamic party.
Head scarves are banned from public offices and even from schools. The prime minister recently complained that he has to send his daughters to a university in the United States so they can wear their scarves in public.
The military has checked any effort to re-import religion into Turkey's public life, and the government maintains friendly relations not simply with Syria and Iran, but with Israel as well. A great many Israeli tourists can be found in Turkey, which is probably the best indication of Turkey's safety for foreign visitors.