The Ankapark development, billed as the world’s largest theme park, was once a flagship project of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) administration in the Turkish capital Ankara. Having spent just six months operational – and with a change of mayor in Ankara – the park’s gates are shuttered and the project threatens to become a giant white elephant.
The fate of Ankapark, which replaced a section of the historic Atatürk Forest Farm, now lies in the hands of Mansur Yavaş, Ankara’s new mayor, who is a member of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). He faces a choice between reopening the park in order to recover the millions of lira the municipality has already spent on it, or returning the site to its earlier state.
The project was launched in 2013 by AKP mayor Melih Gökçek, who decorated the 1.3 million square metre theme park with giant dinosaur statues. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan endorsed the project, saying that it would add value to Ankara’s brand.
Initially projected to welcome five million tourists in its first year, the park only stayed open for six months after it opened in May 2019, with visitor numbers well below expectations. Two years earlier, a disastrous press launch saw a roller coaster break down with Gökçek on board, leaving the mayor stranded. Visitors suffered similar fates on multiple rides, with repair work apparently unable to permanently fix the machinery.
The park included 2,117 rides, a parking lot for 6,800 vehicles, and a hotel to host out-of-town visitors, which Gökçek said in 2018 cost the equivalent of 300 million US dollars. In 2019, Erdoğan put the price of the project at 255 million dollars. More recently, Yavaş revealed the actual cost of the park to be 801 million dollars. A point of contention between political parties, the park – run by a private company, backed by public funds – now costs the municipality a million Turkish liras daily.
According to Haydar Demir, an CHP Ankara councillor, many of the tenders offered as part of the Ankapark project were not carried out correctly and were often repeatedly allocated to the same recipients.
“They just did whatever they wanted and created this project of waste,” Demir said, adding that the CHP was in a minority on the council at the time and councillors’ protests were overruled.
“However, [even] AKP members have begun to be bothered by the state of things now,” he continued.
No AKP representatives responded to requests for comment from Inside Turkey. However, in 2019, Aydın Ünal, a former AKP member of parliament for Ankara, expressed reservations about the park in a newspaper article, complaining that heavy investment in the project “caused the disruption of municipal services in Ankara”.
Demir now says that the funds poured into the park could have been used to solve many problems experienced in the capital, noting the city’s issues with water distribution.
“All the drinking water in this city of six million people was routed to purification centres, and water shortages were remedied for some districts. That cost 600 million dollars. The money spent to solve Ankara’s transportation problems is 101 million dollars. So Ankapark’s budget could have solved Ankara’s water and road infrastructure problems,” he said.
Under the new CHP mayor, the Ankara municipality sued the company running Ankapark for the annulment of the contract and the evacuation of the premises. At the first hearing of the case on September 13, the court ruled in favour of the Ankara municipality’s petition to dismiss Ankapark’s contract. However, they did not remove any injunctions on the park’s evacuation, so a barrier remains to the municipality taking ownership of it. The municipality will now petition a higher court to appeal the ruling.
Yavaş had said that the area was a national treasure, and that the investment shouldn’t go to waste. Demir also suggested to Inside Turkey that the municipality could improve the facility and continue running it as a park after it returns to municipal control.
Established by modern Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in 1937 to encourage agricultural production, the site was donated to the national treasury after his death. Law 5659 on the Foundation of the Atatürk Forest Farm Directorate banned all trade, industrial activity and residential building on the land. The AKP government had to use legal manoeuvres to allow their desired use of the land, permitting residential construction and trade to be carried out on the property. The site now also hosts the lavish presidential compound built by Erdoğan in 2014, often nicknamed “the palace”.
The Turkish Architects’ Chamber described the area as “a battlefield”, filing over 300 legal complaints about improper practices carried out on the property. Another criminal complaint was filed for Ankapark recently, adding to almost 20 others.
Tezcan Karakuş Candan, Ankara chair for the Architects’ Chambe, is in favour of restoring the former Atatürk Forest Farm.
“Ankara’s budget was used inefficiently. The 801 million dollars that was announced is only the tip of the iceberg,” he said, adding that the current municipal administration should evacuate the premises.
“This structure is an urban crime,” he continued. “Using this lot as a park is an ideological betrayal to Atatürk’s will, and is a spending out of the city budget under the municipality, which is a continuation of wasteful use. Proper management of this place would require 3,000 people in staff and 18 million visitors annually to be able to pay wages. How could a municipality handle that? It’s clearly not possible. This place is doomed to go bankrupt,” Candan concluded.
A park employee who has worked across different departments at a senior level said that the project could have added value to the city, but was hindered by political factors.
The facility was built on an enormous budget, the employee – who asked to remain anonymous – continued, adding, “There’s major waste in effect at the park. There were ashtrays coated in gold dust in some rooms.”
The park didn’t pay its employees’ wages in the six months that it stayed open, the worker said, adding that the staff eventually went on strike.
“The park closed after our decision, and hasn’t been reopened since. Now, we’re all listed as being on unpaid leave. The companies running the place, and the park management literally robbed it. The resources inside slowly began to be stolen after the park closed. Everything was gone, down to the electrical wires. This place was prepared with fine detail. It could have been a nice park if it had been run properly. Now it’s just a nuisance to everyone,” the employee said.
The Ankara chief public prosecutor’s office has launched an investigation into tenders offered for Ankapark, and will look into claims of corruption about purchases and sales that took place during construction.
Gökçek claimed in recent months that all tenders were conducted legally, and said that the spending done by his administration was the equivalent of “about 400 million dollars”.
“This dinosaur park is the largest closed amusement park in the world. It hasn’t turned into a junkyard, that’s all lies,” he said.