Contrasts make Istanbul more attractive to tourists: Expert

Contrasts make Istanbul more attractive to tourists: Expert

BARÇIN YİNANÇ- Istanbul
Contrasts make Istanbul more attractive to tourists: Expert

What makes Istanbul attractive to tourists are its contrasts, according to a seasoned guide. “There are few cities which harbor so much diversity,” said Serhan Güngör to Hürriyet Daily News. “The social-cultural cleavages lead to dramatic differences which are very interesting for an outsider to watch and observe,” according to Güngör.

Did you foresee that Dan Brown would write a book after visiting the city under your guidance?

When I learned that I will guide Dan Brown, I thought this was a good opportunity and felt that if I could impress him, the city could inspire him and that his book could contribute to the promotion of the city. And when the book (“Inferno”) came out in 2013, despite the Gezi Park incidents (widespread demonstrations), tourism continued full speed. The arrival of foreign tourists, especially those with high-income levels, did not slow down at all, and the book probably contributed to that.

Is it the historic peninsula and the mystic part of the city what inspired him?

Hagia Sophia and Basilica Cistern were at the center of fiction. In that sense, there was more a perception based on classic sites. But I think my contribution came from my presentation that underlines that İstanbul is not just an oriental mystic city- that it is at the same time, a modern, rich cosmopolitan city. He also did underline that contrast.

The skyscrapers in Maslak neighborhood stand as a complete contrast to the historic peninsula. The book’s setting also includes the modern part of the city.

The perception of the city in the book is not orientalist and more close to the reality as it depicts a city which has both old and new, local and universal characteristics.

But it is the city’s historic and mystic part that attracts the tourists, isn’t it?

Yes, but at the same time, I think what makes İstanbul attractive is to catch its contrasts, to see both the (historic) spice market and the (upscale European-side) Nişantaşı neighborhood.

What makes Istanbul unique is not the spice market. You can find similar markets in Tabriz or Damascus. But you can’t find the (chic) Bagdat street (on the Asian side) or Nişantaşı in these cities.

The life in İstanbul has several compartments. As guides we make our guests travel between compartments.

The educated Turks with high and upper middle income-level live in certain neighborhoods and rarely go to the historic peninsula, for instance.

There are only a few examples that harbors such diversity. And there are not too many examples like Istanbul, which is both Eastern but also Western in its own style.

In Cairo, Damascus, Isfahan; you feel you are in the East.

So you believe foreigners should not limit their visit to just the historic parts?

I believe the modern parts are attractive for tourists, as well.

But in many Western cities especially, there are streets like Baghdad street.

But there is a difference. Obviously, each city has rich and poor parts. You can feel the class divides. But the divides in İstanbul bring with it very dramatic cultural differences. And it’s not like an ethnic difference like the African neighborhoods in Paris. The social-cultural cleavages lead to dramatic differences which are very interesting for an outsider to watch and observe.

When you take the tourists to Fatih neighborhood (on the European side), the aim is obviously to visit a structure from the Byzantium period or a mosque. But walking in that (conservative /pious) neighborhood is an experience in itself. Tourism globally turns into experience. It is not just about counting the places you visit. Tourism is also about observation, an interaction. A mosaic doesn’t perhaps leave a mark in the memory of a tourist- but a street vendor selling pickles does.

It becomes a fantastic experience to walk in the morning in (the conservative) Çarşamba, to see the social fabric there - the market, the people and go to a coffee shop in Baghdad street gazing at people strolling along the streets. There is an unbelievable jump between the two strata. Our guests find this very exciting.

So in a way, the polarization in Turkey makes the country attractive to foreigners rather than frightening?

This polarization is frightening for us. But from a tourist’s point of view, the compartmentalization caused by polarization is a fantastic thing to observe. You can find diversity in other cities but the ones in our case is too big, too widespread.

What would be your suggested destination?

For Istanbul 101, in other words, for introduction to the city, I would start from the gist of the historic peninsula, Sultanahmet Square where the first ancient city was set up. It is perhaps the most touristic place, but it is unique.

There are few places in the world where so many huge monuments stand next to each other within walking distance. This is a place where you can see the core of the city’s imperial history. The city’s historic markets, the covered bazaar and the spice market are at a walking distance as well.

For 201, I would suggest Süleymaniye region, a walk in Fatih, to include a visit to Chora Church. Seeing the city walls and the Golden Horn, as well as visiting the Fener-Balat neighborhood should be in 201.

 Then should come the discovery of neighborhoods that are very specific to Istanbul: Taksim, İstiklal street, Beyoğlu, Galata, Karaköy.

At the entrance of İstiklal street, you have a Greek Orthodox Church, and now it will face the new mosque that is being constructed. To visit the city learning about the fast-changing social/political developments makes the discovery more interesting. The opera building (Atatürk Cultural Center) was demolished, and it will be reconstructed; but still, there is a dramatic picture there - while the opera building waits to be constructed, the mosque is already constructed.

It is a city squeezed between universal and local. It misunderstands what universal means. Skyscrapers are taken as a sign of universalism.

It does not understand properly what local means either. Chinese products are being sold in the covered bazaar, which dates from the 16th century. We do not take ownership of our own culture, its art, its carpet, its ceramics. There is the same confusion in its architecture. There are some towers in the city; the empty ones, I call them Darth Vader towers.

Aren’t you embarrassed explaining them to foreign visitors?

I am saddened, but my job is to explain it with facts. Obviously, this is the financial center of Turkey, and the city has to grow, and skyscrapers add another characteristic to the city. But nowhere would you see a city’s historic skyline which remained unchanged since the 17th century to be blocked by skyscrapers. Until a few years ago, the skyline in the historic peninsula was the same since the 17th century; now, you see the skyscrapers behind the mosque.

Where do you place İstanbul as a global tourism destination?

I won’t be a naïve Istanbul romantic. I won’t say this is the most beautiful city in the world. Maybe it was once upon a time. But Istanbul is unique in its diversity.

Is there a good time to visit Istanbul?

There is, and it is definitely not the weekends. The biggest problem is the crowds. It is already a crowded city, and it attracts a lot of tourists as well. At one stage, we hosted nearly 10 million tourists in one year.

Religious holidays are a good occasion to visit the city. As locals leave Istanbul, the city is left to travelers.

Who is Serhan Güngör?

Born in Ankara in 1969, Serhan Güngör received his bachelor’s degree in political science and public administration from Middle East Technical University (METU) in Ankara in 1992. He later studied Ottoman social history at Istanbul’s Boğazici University and earned his master’s degree in geography from Istanbul University with his thesis on the historical battlefields of Turkey.

A corporate stint led him to work in 16 countries as a factory inspector for Wal-Mart Stores Inc.

After he received his official tour guide certificate from the Ministry of Tourism in 1997, he dabbled in a variety of different jobs, from working as a show translator and guide for David Copperfield’s Magic Show in Istanbul to hosting official guests of the Turkish government. He has accompanied Turkish travelers to more than 30 countries.

He is a member of the board of directors of Istanbul Tourist Guides Guild.

Tourism, Turkey, Sultanahmet, serhan güngör