Islands’ appeal threatened by rapid rise in visitors

The seats shake, water thunders out from under the stern and the ferry eases out »»

The seats shake, water thunders out from under the stern and the ferry eases out of its holding to back into the Marmara Sea.

 It’s early on a Friday morning and the hundreds of chattering day trippers lining the ferry’s railings are heading out to the Princes’ Islands, a tiny archipelago that sits just a few miles off İstanbul’s built-up coastline.

Though it’s a weekday, the ferry is crammed with a mixture of city natives and foreign tourists. Families laugh together, snapping shots of the city as it is left behind in the ferry’s wake and lobbing broken bits of “simit” (Turkish pretzel) over the railings for the boat’s escort of sweeping, dipping seagulls.

The explosive growth of İstanbul’s tourist industry over the past decade has been nothing short of remarkable, and anyone who has borne witness to the hoards of sweaty tourists battling their way through Taksim Square on a summer’s day will appreciate the appeal of these beautiful islands, where motor vehicles are banned and the frantic, honking bustle of İstanbul is said to fade to a mere memory, a long silver smudge along the horizon.

After 40 minutes the first of the islands, Kınalıada, slides into view, complete with sunny green slopes and enticing beaches. And yet, equally striking these days is the overwhelming presence of newly built real estate. Its hills are crowded with summerhouses, white concrete monoliths jostling for position with the more traditional Ottoman elegance.

Once they’ve stepped onto shore, many of these tourists will rent bikes and spend the day cycling along the islands’ delightful cliff paths. The enveloping heat, the breathtakingly calm Marmara Sea, the twisted trees and shrubs that hum steadily with insect life all feel a million miles away from Beşiktaş on İstanbul’s European coastline. It is this sense of escape, found only an hour’s ferry ride from the city center, which is surely the key to the appeal of the Princes’ Islands, and to the success of their tourist industry. But for how long can this serenity be preserved? According to İstanbul’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism, the legion of tourists that descend on nearby İstanbul grew by over 10 percent last year, bringing the annual total to 8 million and whilst the meteoric rise in tourism figures on the mainland is not quite matched in the islands, the Adalar (Islands) Municipality reports an average of 150,000 visitors to the islands on weekends, compared to 100,000 five years ago.

This growth in visitors has, of course, been matched by a growth in infrastructure. An in depth study of Büyükada conducted in 2007, “Sustainable Development of Tourism for Islands,” identified only five hotels and three home inns on the island. The updated listings on the Municipality website shows that there are now 13 such establishments.

The historic attractions of the Princes’ Islands, the churches, mosques and the faded splendor of the 19th century wooden houses and hotels, are well protected. Equally, the mayor insisted several years ago that “no matter how fast the car industry develops, this island will remain car free.” But these are very small islands, and can only absorb so many waves of tourists before they become saturated -- at which point their appeal as a refuge from hectic İstanbul will rapidly diminish.

In fact, the 2007 study identifies “congestion on the beaches,” “negative perception of the destination image due to over demand” and “littering” as some of the major threats to the Büyükada’s future as a tourist attraction. Five years on, these problems have been compounded.

Docking at Büyükada, the archipelago’s largest island, passengers must join the surge upwards into the town center, which is reminiscent of İstanbul’s Sultanahmet (Blue Mosque) neighborhood with its gang of nagging touts and overpriced kebabs, and then flee to the fringes of the town before they can begin to enjoy the peace that the island-wide motor vehicle ban was designed to preserve.

The island’s combined population stands at a mere 20,000 during the winter, but swells to 400,000 over the summer months. These year-round residents work almost exclusively in tourism, and few of them view the relentless rise in the number of visitors as anything but a good thing. Kaan Garlip, who has managed a seafront restaurant on the island for two years, and lived on it for all of his 26, agrees that the numbers are rocketing, but doesn’t consider this a problem. “More tourists, more money,” he says with shrug, “People like me and my father, that live and work here, all work in the tourist industry, we couldn’t be here if it wasn’t for them.”

A few streets along, Mustafa Raç, owner of one of the many ‘Rent-a-Bike’ shacks that are scattered throughout the town, leans against his door frame and chuckles when asked how he thinks the dramatic spike in tourist numbers will affect the island. “Tourists are business. They come in morning, they go at night. They have always been part of our lives,” he says.

Raç and Garlip’s relaxed view of the situation is perhaps explained by the fact that tourism has been playing a key part in the islands’ economy for generations. The first ferries began plying the routes between the islands and the mainland in 1846. A black and white picture hanging on the wall of one of Büyükada’s cafes shows a ferry load of tourists back in 1925 spilling out onto the quay just as they do today.

But never before have they come in such numbers.

With their striking architecture, fascinating history and natural beauty, the Princes’ Islands are one of İstanbul’s most precious attributes. The continued development of their tourism infrastructure is inevitable, but that it does not need to be unsustainable. Growth at the rate seen over the past few years will eventually destroy the serene charm of these islands. If this is allowed to happen, the tourists will arguably stop coming in such numbers and the local tourist industry will be left wishing they'd taken a more restrained approach to courting them. With this in mind, future decisions to increase the number of ferry routes or throw up more hotels should not be taken lightly.