Istanbul’s Eminonu Market is usually packed with shopgoers but was nearly deserted recently, due to the strict lockdown to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Photo by AP Photo/Emrah Gurel

A video promoting tourism in Turkey amid the pandemic has caused an uproar on social media for showing tourism employees wearing masks that read “Enjoy, I’m vaccinated.” The video, in English, was published Thursday, May 13, on the social media accounts of the tourism ministry’s official guide and was taken down later that day without explanation. It aimed to promote travel to Turkey as a “safe haven” for foreigners and showed unmasked tourists being served in hotels on the Turkish coast.

Turkey itself is in the final steps of a coronavirus lockdown as it eases towards a gradual normalization. On Sunday, May 16, Turkey’s interior ministry lifted a full lockdown that had ordered people to stay home to fight COVID-19 infections, shifting to a less-restrictive program that still involves curfews on weeknights and weekends. But millions of workers are exempt and so are foreign tourists.

Opposition parties and critics on social media said the promotional video was an insult to Turks. A hashtag calling for the tourism minister to resign was trending Friday on Twitter. Users interpreted the ad’s message as Turks being subservient to foreigners.

Tourism workers have been prioritized to receive vaccinations and the country’s foreign minister promised, “We will vaccinate all people that tourists may see by the end of May.” Many other Turks are still waiting for their turn for a vaccine shot. About 12.8 percent of Turkey’s nearly 84 million people have been fully inoculated using China’s Sinovac or the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

Turkey’s lockdown restrictions, which were expanded to stricter measures in late April, have brought daily infection numbers down from above 62,000 to around 11,500. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the aim is to lower new cases to below 5,000 a day in order for tourism to begin.

Under the new less-restrictive lockdown rules, which apply from Monday, May 17, to Tuesday, June 1, shopping malls will be able to reopen and preschools will resume in-person education (upper grades will continue remote learning). Some businesses will remain closed, including gyms and cafés, but restaurants will be able to offer takeaway in addition to delivery.

Turks can return to their workplaces but will have to stay home from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. on weekdays and all day Saturday and Sunday, with the exception of walking to a market to buy food. Civil servants will continue working remotely or in shifts in offices. Unvaccinated senior citizens over 65 will only be allowed to leave their homes between 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on weekdays. Intercity travel during curfews is subject to permission.

Because Turkey is courting international tourists during an economic downturn and needs the foreign currencies that tourism brings to help the economy as the Turkish lira continues to sink, foreigners are exempt from the lockdown rules. International tourists have been enjoying an empty Istanbul and having Turkey’s famous beaches and historical sites all to themselves, while Turks have been told to stay home and face expensive fines if they break rules.

Russia, however, has suspended flights to Turkey until June 1, and the U.K. and France recently warned their citizens not to travel to Turkey, introducing mandatory quarantines for travelers arriving from Turkey. Formula One canceled the Turkish Grand Prix scheduled for June on Friday, and the UEFA Champions League final on May 29 was relocated from Istanbul to Porto in Portugal due to Turkey’s outbreak and travel restrictions.

While travelers arriving from the United States must still present a negative COVID-19 test result when arriving in Turkey regardless of their vaccination status, as of Monday, May 17, Turkey dropped testing requirements for passengers coming from Hong Kong, China, Vietnam, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Thailand, South Korea, Israel, Japan, the United Kingdom, Latvia, Luxembourg, Ukraine, and Estonia. Turkey requires mandatory quarantines for people who visited India, Brazil, or South Africa, but other travelers can begin their vacations straightaway.

In an Istanbul Economics Research survey with over 1,500 people published Friday, 77 percent of Turks surveyed said it’s wrong that tourists are exempt from coronavirus restrictions.

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Zeynep Bilginsoy Freelance journalist + producer based in Istanbul. Work with AP, VICE, BBC, CNN, and more.

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