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Sunday, May 18, 2008

A rocky of Cappadocia

The eternal conflict arises in Cappadocia: yes, it’s a beautiful area and the whole world should know about it; but increasing tourism brings inevitable problems. Cappadocia’s historial significance was overlooked by the world until the turn of the 20th century, when a French priest was believed to have drawn attention to its cave churches.

While archeologists were regular early visitors, the tourism boom only really began in the 1980s, and many tour groups can be seen in the area today. The ever-intrepid Japanese top the number of visitors, and Cappadocia is also increasingly drawing rich, elite travellers. The Hilton is scheduled to arrive soon, the first of other big hotel chains.

This is good news for a population dependent on tourism, of course. But we’ve seen this before: a beautiful, unique area becomes a popular tourist destination and, soon, what made it unique in the first place is lost.

Is Cappadocia at risk of losing its traditions, unique cave homes, and surreal rock formations?

Until 1974, locals could use the fairy chimneys (as the peculiar volcanic rock formations are called) as cellars and homes as long as they maintained them. Since 1985, however, Turkey’s National Estate Directorate has been charging annual rents, causing many residents to abandon the unique structures.

Some 5, 000 out of an estimated 50, 000 fairy chimneys in Cappadocia are at risk from erosion, said the mayor of Goreme village, Fevzi Gunal, in an interview with Turkish Daily News in January last year.

Goreme Tourism Development Cooperative Chairman Mustafa Durmaz told the same paper, “Whenever it rains, we worry about the fairy chimneys. One or two chimneys are ruined every year. In a few years’ time, we won’t be able to see them any longer.”

The Museum Directorate in Cappadocia’s provincial capital, Nevsehir, reported in the same paper in January, 2006, that 265 TV stations in 45 countries have received filming licenses, with Japan holding 52 permits – all of which means a higher profile for the region, and even more visitors.

With tourist arrivals rising from 1.5 million in 2004 to an expected 2 million this year, there seems no end to tourists treading this ancient land – and leaving their mark. Tourism has its benefits and drawbacks, of course, as the locals well know.

Harun Mumcu, 28, who runs the Kale Terrasse (Cave Terrace) Restaurant beside a Roman tomb inside a fairy chimney in Goreme, says there are just not enough tourists to fill the more than 90 hotels that already exist in Cappadocia.

“There has been progress, such as better roads and facilities,” he says. “But the benefits from big tourist groups are limited. Most profits go to the travel agencies in Istanbul.

The tourism season in summer also lasts just three months.”

Another restaurant owner, who asks not to be named, voices his sadness at the rate local houses are being bought and combined to create “characterless small hotels”.

“Last week when I took a walk around Goreme village, I was startled to find only four houses remaining on one of the streets. The rest had been purchased and turned into a cheap hotel,” he says.

One way of preserving Cappadocia is through sensitive planning and catering to small, exclusive travellers’ groups rather than huge tours, says Didem Z.

Bulgurlu, assistant general manager of Goreme’s newest luxury property hotel, Cappadocia Cave Resort and Spa.

“This was once a pile of rubble before Istanbul businessman Mustafa Cankaya restored the cave houses,” she explains, gesturing around the hotel’s elegant interior.

“We have to abide by strict rules about preserving a traditional façade. Skilled local artisans were hired. We do want tourism here, it’s vital for development and jobs.”

Nevsehir governor M. Asim Hacimustafaoglu says he wants to focus on religious and cultural tourism to preserve Cappadocia’s historical significance and integrity.

“We have synagogues, mosques, and churches that have existed side by side peacefully for centuries,” he says.

“Cappadocia is significant for both Muslim and Christian pilgrims. There are over 2,000 churches and over 300 underground cities, with only 12 of the latter open, as it costs alot to restore and open them.

“As Cappadocia is listed as a Unesco World Heritage site, it is under constant supervision,” he adds. “The rocks have weathered thousands of years. Crumbling fairy chimneys are not a risk.”

Goreme House Hotel founder Yasar Ozdemir, 42, is more worried about the change in lifestyles among villagers.

“We were once a close knit community,” he says. “Now people are living increasingly separate lives.

Young people no longer want to be farmers. We are following the European lifestyle and forgetting our own Turkish roots.”