Sustainable tourism in Istanbul – a travel writer’s perspective
Sustainable travel and tourism covers a wide spectrum of issues, ranging from financial, cultural, social, and environmental. For destinations it can mean more spread out sightseeing, to alleviate the pressure on top visited attractions. To the traveller, the benefits are many; fewer crowds, seeing unknown parts of the city, and establishing a deeper connection and understanding of your chosen destination. A favourite place of mine, Istanbul, lends itself to exploration off the beaten path, a good way to spread visitors and contribute to sustainable tourism. Its strategic location has historically made it into a world capital and, as such, has an endless supply of fascinating spots. To One Planet Journey’s delight, a recent book release covering this topic caught our attention. Of course, we had to chat with the author, Lisa Morrow, to get expert advice on the best places to discover.
Australian born Lisa is passionate about her adopted city Istanbul and authored four books about it and Türkiye. Furthermore, she has released an audio walking tour and you can find her writing on CNN Travel and The Guardian, among others. In other words, we’re in excellent hands together with the author of Istanbul 50 Unsung Places.
How does an Australian writer end up in Istanbul? Did the city choose you or vice versa?
I’d love to say I dreamt of living in Istanbul since I was a child or that I came after listening to other travellers talk about their adventures in Türkiye, but it happened purely by chance. From school I continued straight to university, but it wasn’t a great fit so I did all sorts of things like cleaning, working in bars, the public service and even sitting on the street counting cars. I was working multiple jobs when a friend suggested I visit him in London. Sydney, Australia, where I’m from, is a long way from anywhere and I jumped at the opportunity. I lived in a crazy fun three-bedroom share house with 23 other Australians and New Zealanders and became friends with a woman from Melbourne. We hitchhiked around the UK and when she set off for Greece, I followed. Within days of once again meeting in Istanbul, the Gulf War was in full swing. My friend returned to the UK, and I headed to Anatolia, Türkiye’s heartland, and stayed on for three months. I was hooked, but it took a few years before I moved to Istanbul for good.
What makes Istanbul stand out among great world cities?
I’m definitely biased, but I think Istanbul stands out because it’s a treasure trove for the curious. The city contains an incredible collection of historical sights, structures and artefacts dating back thousands of years, with more discoveries all the time. In a single day you can easily visit a Byzantine palace from the 13th century and watch contemporary Turks commemorate a 16th-century Islamic scholar in a glorious mosque complex overlooking the Bosphorus. Then continue by viewing modern art in a 19th-century former synagogue and eat slow cooked lamb in a neighbourhood that wouldn’t look out of place in eastern Türkiye today. However, the locals you get to meet and interact with along the way truly make Istanbul shine. Even if you only have a few shared words between you, Turkish people are genuinely interested in visitors to their country. They delight in your enjoyment of their culture, food, and history.
Your interest in Türkiye has resulted in several works on the topic. Who are they targeted at?
After I returned from Türkiye the first time I re-enrolled at university and graduated with a Master’s Degree in Sociology. I use the skills I gained there in writing my books, not just focussing on my personal stories, but sharing observations about Turkish culture and life based on my lived experiences of them. I want people to look beyond the surface differences of Turkish society compared to their own countries, to better understand them and see the similarities we share.
Regardless of the country you come from, everyone has the same hopes and dreams, be it for a better job, to own a nice house, marry, travel, have kids, and so on. The difference comes in the ways we express or act them out. “Dancing in the Streets” from my first essay collection Inside Out In Istanbul: Making Sense of the City is an example of this. A woman in my neighbourhood got married, and the family hired köçek, men who dance dressed as women, to help them celebrate. The joy and excitement of the happy couple matched a wedding anywhere in the world, only the way they partied differed.
In my second collection, Exploring Turkish Landscapes: Crossing Inner Boundaries, I share what it means to live in a culture very different from your own. Turkish people are quite rigid about some of their beliefs, and this forces you to decide what values you absolutely will not give up and learn to negotiate about others. As a tourist, you’re able to gloss over aspects of cultures that make you feel uncomfortable or are too hard to deal with, but if you want to belong in and to a particular place, you can’t do that. My memoir Istanbul Dreams: Waiting for the Tulips to Bloom goes into the reality of living in Türkiye, with all the trials and tribulations this entails. My most recent collection of essays, Longing for Istanbul: The Words I Haven’t Said Yet, builds on this. In it, I explore how my feelings oscillate between enchantment and disillusionment, ending with a love letter to Istanbul, the city I’m proud to call home.
Your latest book, Istanbul 50 Unsung Places, piqued our interest because of its potential to ease overtourism and boost sustainable travel and tourism. Can you give our readers a few tips you consider unknown gems?
Some of them are actually hiding in plain sight. Two great modernist architectural examples are the Marmara University Theology Faculty Mosque and Culture Centre in Altunizade, on the Asian side of Istanbul, and the Florya Atatürk Sea Pavilion on the European continent, along the Sea of Marmara coastline. One was built for religious purposes and the other as a secular getaway for the founder of the modern Turkish Republic. Both are known to residents and some domestic tourists, but international visitors rarely, if ever, see them because they tend to stick to the major tourist areas. You’ll find everything you need to know, including how to reach them by public transport, in my new travel guide, Istanbul 50 Unsung Places.
Is sustainability a concept that’s talked about in terms of destination marketing? Have you noticed a change during your time in the country?
Things have definitely shifted since I first came to Türkiye. In the last few years, the Istanbul Municipality Council has restored smaller cultural sights, not only saving the city’s history but allowing the tourist footprint to spread over a wider cityscape, easing pressure on major touristic areas. The country has a rich cultural heritage, for long a veritable cornucopia of lush wild places and edible produce with eco and sustainable tourism possibilities. Due to its abundance of natural resources and climate, the Aegean coast has become a hive of alternative offerings, including classes in biodiversity and nature conservation, farm to table dining, and of course olive oil and wine tourism options.
3 quick ones; favourite food, attraction and side (Asian/European) in Istanbul?
It’s almost impossible to choose only one item from the vast array of Turkish cuisine available, but for meat I’d have to say Buryan kebab, lamb cooked in a tandir oven for hours. In terms of vegetables, I could eat pazı dolması, chard leaves stuffed with spiced rice, every day of the week.
I adore mosques in all shapes and sizes, but I’m also a dedicated taphophile. That is, I love cemeteries and what they teach us about a place. Haydarpaşa Cemetery on the Asian side of the city (my favourite part of Istanbul), dates to the 19th century and has an eclectic selection of graves including those of wealthy Levantine families, a Polish dictator, European diplomats, sepoys from Asia and a monument to Florence Nightingale. History aside, its green lawns lined with mature trees located right on the water’s edge make for a pleasant spot to rest and recharge, away from the hustle and bustle of Istanbul’s always busy streets.
Looking outside Istanbul, what are your recommendations for travellers who’ve already seen the major wonders in the country?
As well as exploring the Aegean coast, I’d urge people to travel to cities and sights in eastern and south eastern Türkiye. I’ve travelled in the region a lot and have learned something new each time, eaten wonderful food, made friends and revelled in the glorious landscapes. Mardin’s warren of streets hum with the sound of residents chatting in seven different languages, including one of the oldest, Aramaic. Take in the expansive views on the plains around Mt Ararat while heading to Ishak Paşa Saray, a 13th-century castle set nearly 2000 metres above sea level.
In Gaziantep, eat your way through UNESCO awarded tables and, at Göbeklitepe, outside Şanliurfa, gaze on the world’s oldest known settlement. Please note these last two cities were hit by the recent earthquakes and are undergoing major repairs, so check out the situation with the Turkish Ministry of Tourism first. That said, make plans to visit these areas in the future because income generated by travellers helps sustain local communities.
Apart from Australia and Istanbul, are there any other destinations that beckon, in terms of a new home?
Honestly? No. I lived in Portugal for three years with a view to making it permanent, but I missed Türkiye, my life and my friends here too much. With all the sunny articles written about digital nomads, you assume you just buy a ticket and get on a plane, but it takes a lot of work to establish yourself in a new place. To get beyond only having foreign acquaintances who all speak your language, to actually live in another country and engage with locals, rather than recreate the same existence you had back home. This involves dealing with all the hard stuff too, like bureaucracy, religious differences, gender roles and so on.
As a final note, what’s your most cherished travel moment?
I was sitting in the courtyard of a pension in Göreme, writing in my journal. It was my first solo journey, and I’d been away from Australia for around six months. It was quiet. There were no other guests around. The early autumn sun was gentle on my skin and all I could hear was birdsong. I put my pen down, looked up, and smiled. I was happy.
It’s bliss to find moments of solitude and reflection! Teşekkür ederim (thank you), Lisa, for sharing your personal travel journey, and for the many tips on Istanbul. Your love for the city is obvious, and for me, I can’t wait to go again. Interested in Lisa’s publications? Visit the Inside out in Istanbul website, Facebook page, and Instagram account. You can also find more about other works on Lisa’s author page on Facebook.
Have you been to Istanbul? What part is your favourite? Tell us in the comment section! Don’t forget to subscribe to the newsletter and benefit from travel tips, interviews, and inspirational examples of sustainable travel and tourism.