A child, a neighbour’s daughter, screams loudly. I think she wants her inflatable pink flamingo, to take to the beach a few metres away. In between her yelling, I can hear the clinking of cutlery, which means another neighbour is clearing their breakfast table. As the sun rises, my bedroom heats up, and without checking my phone, I know it’s around half past seven in the morning – the time I usually wake up in my mother’s summer house.
Once a popular holiday choice in Turkey, summer houses have seen a revival of interest during the coronavirus pandemic. They became common in the 1980s, and owning one was a symbol of affluence among the country’s middle class. Younger generations, however, have tended to prefer hotels and trips abroad.
“This place has not been the first choice of our children, who have their own children now, for many years,” said Reşat Karaman, one of my mother’s neighbours in Datça, a coastal town in southwestern Turkey. The 67-year-old pensioner now lives in Datça all year round. “It was seen as old-fashioned, and not fun, but now people are looking for isolated places.”
“It’s the same with you,” he added. “You weren’t here last year, but now I can see you working on the terrace from my balcony.”
Seda Belli, a 25 year-old engineer from Istanbul, joined our chat after her morning swim.
“Going on holiday with friends didn’t seem like an option this year,” she said. “My family invites me here every year, but I preferred to go elsewhere before the pandemic. I came to my family’s home four weeks ago, and it’s safer and more idyllic than I expected.”
Belli, who has been working remotely from Datça, said she planned to stay until the end of the summer.
While we talk, I can see at least a dozen children on the beach, making sandcastles or swimming. A couple in their 30s, their arms covered in tattoos, play with their daughter. A mum in her early 40s shouts at her son not to go further out to sea. When I last visited Datça, two years ago, there were fewer children and young people.
Halime Gürel, a 54 year-old primary school teacher and another of my mother’s neighbours, agrees. “We have more young people this year. There’s more energy around, and it’s given the economy a boost,” she said, adding that rents have gone up in response to the increased demand for summer houses.
According to a report published by the Turkish Travel Agencies Association (TURSAB) at the end of July, demand for rented homes and boutique hotels has risen this year as a result of the pandemic. Almost a quarter of holidaymakers opted for summer houses in the first seven months of 2020.
Restrictions on international travel have hurt Turkey’s tourism industry. In July last, 6.6 million tourists visited the country, but this April, the monthly figure plummeted to 24,000. Visitor numbers grew to just under a million in June, according to Turkey’s Culture and Tourism Ministry.
Sadık Arslan, who works for the online holiday rentals firm evtatilim.com, said that the market has been relatively well insulated from the slump thanks to increased domestic demand.
“Even with lower reservation numbers in June, we were full in July and August,” she said. “People who normally prefer big hotel complexes and all-inclusive services opted for isolated homes with pools, where they will only interact with their family.”
An executive from another website for rental houses, who asked to remain anonymous, said that although the summer rush was welcome, it had not made up for business lost at the start of the pandemic.
“During the earlier months of the year, the occupancy rate decreased by almost 80 per cent. Even people in the [tourism] ministry believe that we have been lucky, and do not want to support us financially. But this is unfair,” he told Inside Turkey.
In August, the Turkish lira experienced a sharp devaluation, losing seven per cent of its value. This is the second currency crisis to hit Turkey in two years, and combined with the wider effects of the pandemic, leads many experts to predict trouble ahead. The International Monetary Fund forecasts that the Turkish economy will contract by five per cent in 2020.
Gözde Emekli, an academic at Izmir’s Ege University who specialises in the geography of tourism, said that the limited supply of summer homes has hindered the sector from making up for lost business elsewhere.
“When you look at the online searching data, you can see that more and more people tried to find rental summer houses or trailers, camping sites amid the pandemic,” she said. “The problem is, Turkey was not ready for this kind of demand.”
Some holidaymakers are finding unexpected benefits to their change of plans. Yunus Erdölen, a 23 year-old law graduate from Istanbul, believes spending more time in his family’s summer house in Canakkale, a coastal city in northwestern Turkey, gave him a chance to focus on self-improvement.
“We also spent more time with our neighbours. It helped make up for the loneliness caused by quarantine restrictions,” he said.
For Ayşegül Okan Sağlam, 42, the low cost of staying at her in-laws’ summer house in Ayvalık, a seaside town on the northwestern Aegean coast of Turkey, was particularly attractive.
“Eating out became very expensive in Turkey, and prices are even higher in tourist destinations,” said Sağlam, a museum executive with a nine year-old daughter. “The pandemic brought economic uncertainty; we didn’t want to spend a lot of money on a holiday. We preferred to save it in case there’s a recession.”
Emekli predicts that people will use their summer houses for longer periods in the years to come. “Turkey’s tourism sector, which heavily depends on big hotel complexes, has realised that they need to change in response to the pandemic,” she said. “I believe they will focus more on sustainable methods and local tourism activities in the long term.”
In the evening, I talk to Altan Acar, the tattooed father I saw on the beach that morning.
“We were planning to stay in a hotel [this summer] before the pandemic arrived,” he said. “But we didn’t want to be around a lot of other people, and then my dad phoned and said it was deserted here. It might not have been our plan, but we’re happy to spend more time with family.”
As the sun goes down, Acar and his family load their belongings into a car. Sibel Belli waits nearby with a jar filled with water. She will tip it onto the road when they leave, a traditional gesture to wish someone a safe journey.
“We met this year,” Belli explains. “Their father and my family have been summer house neighbors for years, but I’ve never met them. The coronavirus gave us that chance.”
“Be careful on the road,” she shouts when the engine starts. The answer comes back, “See you next summer. We will all be here. This is the new normal!”