The beach at Antalya on Turkey’s southwest coast. Antalya is one of the Mediterranean’s top tourist destinations. Photo: Tanya Dedyukhina / Wikipedia

Right from the moment the Covid-19 pandemic brought international travel to a halt, Turkey has been determined to be the first to open up to tourism again – so much so that when a surge in infections coincided with the arrival of the first planeload of vacationers in April, the government adopted a novel approach to containment.

Instead of closing the borders or imposing quarantine on incomers, it forced its own citizens off their own streets, parks and beaches and into lockdown so that tourists could roam freely in safety.

During a 17-day lockdown imposed on April 29 – the first since the beginning of the pandemic – workplaces were closed, public transport was limited to 50% capacity and anyone wanting to travel from one city to another to visit friends or relatives for Eid had to get a permit.

As temperatures soared during the first weekend of May, Ukrainian tourists on the Datça peninsula in southwestern Turkey were enjoying themselves on the beaches. A Turkish citizen who tried to do the same was hauled off by the police and fined. 

Unsurprisingly, being denied the freedom to move about in their own country has provoked much outrage, along with some dark humor. When, on May 6, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu pledged to have everyone working in the tourism industry vaccinated by the end of the month, one wag on Twitter threatened to “start biting tourists” if he didn’t get his shot.

An eight-year-old Tourism Ministry advertisement, depicting a blond girl playing on an empty beach, resurfaced on social media as a mock ad with a spoof tagline: “Turkey unlimited: now available without Turks.”

After a new promotional video from the Tourism Ministry aired on May 13 with the tagline “Enjoy, I am vaccinated,” comedian Kaan Sekban tweeted, “They should have added: ‘If you see a Turk outside your hotel, please call 112,'” the number for the emergency services.

Because of public outrage, the video was taken down within two hours, but #TurizmBakaniIstifa (meaning “tourism minister resign”) kept trending on Twitter.

Tourism accounts for 12% of the Turkish economy and saving the industry has been very much at the forefront of the government’s pandemic policy.

Turkey was the first country to reopen its borders last June and the first country to remove all Covid-related entry requirements. Almost half a million tourists from the UK alone visited Turkey last summer.

But for the Turkish people, it appears that their safety matters far less than that of tourists or even any foreigner passing through.

And many are indeed passing through, taking advantage of Turkey’s no-testing, no-quarantine loophole to travel from “Red List countries” with high Covid rates. This is why the India variant of Covid-19, which is ravaging the subcontinent, has surfaced in Turkey, with five cases identified at the beginning of May. Consequently, all travelers coming from India must now go into quarantine.

From May 15 onward, PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests are no longer required for travelers arriving in Turkey from 16 countries or regions, including Hong Kong, China and the UK. The head of the Turkish Medical Association, Dr  Sebnem Korur Fincanci, has warned the government that it was playing with fire. 

Early on in the pandemic, the World Health Organization praised Turkey’s handling of the crisis. While Britain was still debating whether to attempt to reach herd immunity, last May, wearing masks was already compulsory in Turkey. Anyone caught without a mask faced a fine.

Yet a year later, Turkey has the world’s fourth-highest rate of new daily infections, when calculated on a per capita basis. 

How did it come to this? The Turkish Medical Association is clear on the reasons. “The government has prioritized profits over saving lives,” said its secretary general, Dr Vedat Bulut.

Even though most of the recent new cases of Covid-19 have been identified as the UK variant, Ankara has taken no action to restrict travel to or from the UK. Nor has there been any analysis of how Turkey’s open borders have affected the spread of the virus.

According to the Ministry of Health, as of May 16, 25 million vaccine shots had been administered. The Our World in Data project at Oxford University puts the fully vaccinated figure at just over 13% of the population.

The government has a history of under-reporting Covid-19 information – last October, for example, the health minister, Fahrettin Koca, admitted counting “patients, not cases,” meaning the number of asymptomatic Covid-19 cases were not included in the daily briefings.

As such, the public remains skeptical. Meanwhile, Turkey has already welcomed 1,047,000 tourists in the first two months of 2021 and hopes that, with the vaccination program in progress, it will meet its target of 25 million tourists this year.

No one disputes the importance of tourism to Turkey. Certainly, it has been hit hard by Covid-19. But should it be saved at all costs, including the safety and freedom of the Turkish people?

Alexandra de Cramer is a journalist based in Istanbul. She reported on the Arab Spring from Beirut as a Middle East correspondent for Milliyet newspaper. Her work ranges from current affairs to culture, and has been featured in Monocle, Courier Magazine, Maison Francaise and Istanbul Art News.