Parties at ski resorts outrage Turks in lockdown

Images of skiers partying on the slopes have angered ordinary Turks obeying coronavirus restrictions as vaccination efforts roll out.

al-monitor People sit at tables at the Elmadag Ski Resort in Ankara on Jan. 22, 2021. Photo by ADEM ALTAN/AFP via Getty Images.

Topics covered

reopening, restaurants, covid-19, lockdown, vaccines, coronavirus, turkish economy, resorts

Feb 2, 2021

The local skiers arriving in a continuous stream to Turkey’s mountain resorts during school semester breaks probably thought the mountaintops would be a good place to escape from COVID-19 restrictions in the cities — and perhaps get together in the open air. But as soon as the footage of parties crowded with parka-clad socialites hit social media, Turkey’s ever-watchful Interior Ministry cut the good times short.

On Jan. 26, the Interior Ministry sent out regulations on pandemic measures to their local offices and urged them to get the ski hotels to toe the line on COVID-19 measures across the country: no music after 11:00, no crowded gatherings at restaurants or bars even if outdoors, no organized parties and strict enforcement of face masks for all the guests at hotels. It also declared that the weekend lockdowns in the rest of the country apply to ski resorts. 

The images also brought a terse warning from the Health Ministry’s COVID-19 Scientific Committee. “With the winter break at schools, we have seen an unexpected surge in the visitors to the ski resorts,” committee member Emre Kayipmaz told NTV. “But the images we have seen over the weekend have shown crowds on both the slopes and the closed areas of the hotels. This is a serious threat to the measures we have taken … and risk a third peak.” 

Turkey began mass vaccinations with a first batch of 3 million vaccine doses on Jan. 14, starting with health workers and continuing with elderly citizens. The second batch of 10 million doses from China's Sinovac Biotech arrived early Jan. 29, the local press reported. 

“We cannot deny the graveness of the situation … nor can we afford to compromise what we have achieved so far,” tweeted Health Minister Fahrettin Koca on Jan. 28, ahead of the second weekend of the semester break.

“People who stay at the ski resorts can use the ski runs of the hotels during the weekend, but not the others,” Kamil Ozer, the head of the tourism office in Bursa, told Al-Monitor. “Hotels that have violated those rules have already been fined.”

Within 24 hours of the footage of the parties appearing on social media, local officials closed down a hotel at Bursa's Uludag, a popular ski center some 300 kilometers (164 miles) from Istanbul. A 85,000-lira ($11,900) fine was slapped on the hotel and lesser fines on a dozen guests featured in the video footage. 

The governor’s office in Bursa summoned the hotel and cafe managers to remind them of the rules of social distancing. The top five ski resorts said in a joint statement that they were doing their utmost to protect their staff and customers against the pandemic while keeping their business afloat in trying times for the tourism sector. “We regret that a few bad examples have gotten all the attention on social media while nearly all of us abide by the rules,” said the statement, referring to newspaper headlines lambasting “Corona parties.

Despite the swift measures and the following silence at the resorts during the weekend of Jan. 30-Feb. 1, the images of people in their apres-ski costumes enjoying drinks continued to trigger the wrath of the opposition politicians and ordinary citizens. Both lamented the unfairness of allowing “rich people to party” while poor people were suffering both economically and psychologically under the lockdown. 

The most vocal protests came from associations that represent restaurants, cafes, bars and musicians, who have come to the end of their tethers as their business premises remain closed since Nov. 20. After the party pictures surfaced, rumors circulated in the food sector that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan would announce the reopening of restaurants and cafes around mid-February. However, no such decision has been announced — partly because the new variant of the COVID-19 has raised risks. 

Serhat Saymadi runs a Twitter account for the shopkeepers of Taksim Square's Beyoglu neighborhood, @BeyogluEsnafi. “Many of the places that made Istanbul a gastronomic capital are on the verge of bankruptcy,” he told Al-Monitor. His is only one of the many handles and hashtags on social media that lobby for a controlled reopening of restaurants, cafes and taverns in Turkey. “More than two million people who work in the catering and restaurant business are unemployed and some 100,000 businesses are closed down.” A hashtag for “imdat” or “mayday” is trending as some two million people lost their jobs in the restaurant and catering sector. 

“At least half the restaurants in the whole of Turkey — from small family establishments with five tables to large, historical restaurants that are flagships of Turkey’s gastrotourism — are in grave difficulty,” said Muge Akgun, a food columnist for Hurriyet and the founder of the Incili Gastronomic Guide. “The present setup of allowing takeaway but banning customer service on the premises of the restaurants is not enough for them to survive. They need subsidies, tax exemptions and tax delays.”

On Jan. 27, Erdogan announced a new aid package for restaurants, bars and cafes, saying the businesses that have earned less than 50% than the previous year would be subsidized at up to 3% of their losses. “This would be between 2,000 and 40,000 Turkish lira [$279 to $5,500],” he said. But the measure is no more than a band-aid and will not keep anyone afloat, warn insiders. For many of Istanbul's restaurants, even the highest possible payout would not cover their rent.

“I fear that when the pandemic is over, a good portion of Turkey’s best restaurants would find it difficult to reopen their doors in Istanbul and elsewhere. These restaurants are part of our cultural richness — as well as crucial for the economy,” Akgun said.

Galata’s chic Leb-i Derya, which combines the great view of the Bosporus with creative cuisine, has announced that it will be closed until March 25, but many predict that it will never open its doors again. Likewise, Zencefil, a casual-chic vegetarian cafe in downtown İstanbul, has closed its doors. In Izmir, some of the fish restaurants on the water front have closed their doors for good.

The situation in the capital Ankara is no better. Though the city is not known as a tourist center, it enjoys small restaurants known as “esnaf lokantasi” that offer traditional slow food. A group of restaurant and cafe workers gathered to protest the situation Jan. 25 in Ankara but were stopped by police.

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