Photo Credits: Rita Saliba

A couple of months ago, around noon, I was supposed to see a group of friends after work - mainly colleagues and previous ones - to catch up. Four hours later, a friend passes by my office and nonchalantly says "Oh, sorry. I can't make it tonight, I'm traveling to Turkey." 

"How did you come up with such a plan so easily?" I ask her. Again, effortlessly, she replies with "My sister and her friend are there, they convinced me to go. So I booked a ticket ... which reminds me, I have to go pack." 

We went on with our plans that night, discussing and joking about how easy it is to book a flight to Turkey and leave the same day.

In 2011, the number of Lebanese tourists who had visited the European-like country nestled in the Middle East reached 137,000. In 2018, the number rose to 338,000, according to BlomInvest Bank. Though it seems like a negligible figure, visitors from Turkey's neighboring country are constantly wandering around Istanbul during winter and Marmaris during summer. So much so that the numbers are increasing, year-on-year, by 50 percent

Photo Credits: Rita Saliba Source: Instagram/rittasaliba_official

Omar Samadi, a music producer and filmmaker, has been to Turkey 14 times - his 15th is coming up soon - and has a strong connection with the country. 

"My great-grandfather is Turkish, maybe this explains why I have this attachment to Turkey and its culture," he tells me. 

Over the years, he says, he's developed good connections with Turkish people and has even made friends. He also went the extra mile and learned their language, as he doesn't appreciate people speaking in foreign tongues in front of him.

"Now, the moment I step in Turkey, I start behaving as one of the people there with no difference. I feel at home," he explains. What he also appreciates is how clean the streets over there are, how organized the country is, and the widely available transportation system. 

They have metros, trains, taxis, water taxis, and a walk from neighborhood to another is fairly simple. While in Lebanon, a country with one of the highest cars per capita (865 cars per 1,000 people) in the world, enjoys mediocre buses and taxis. 

Photo Credits: Rita Saliba Source: Instagram/salibaritta

Turkey allows all Lebanese to enter without any prior visit to the embassy for a visa. This visa-free system has made it all the more feasible for people to hop on a plane - which takes a few minutes over an hour - and make the most of their next adventure. 

Nour Sakr, a 16-year-old volleyball player, completed her two-digit trips with a volleyball tournament that took place there. In the 10 times she's been, Istanbul and Alanya were the main cities that hosted her. 

"I don't need a visa, so I can just buy a ticket, book a hotel and go," she tells me, following with an emphasis on how the country's currency crisis last July has incentivized more people to go. 

One Lebanese teen, Soubhi Farroukh, actually plans on attending college there. So far, he's landed in Turkey for vacation seven times, as it has become a family tradition to explore the country. 

Photo Credits: Rita Saliba

Another student, 20-year-old Carla Boudargham, has been to Istanbul four out of the five times she's set foot in Turkey. When it comes to traveling to countries that require visas, she believes it's not exactly worth it. According to her, you lose money and time, and might not even get the visa. 

This alone discourages most Lebanese, whose passports barely allow them to visit 45 countries without visas or with visas-on-arrival, to travel further than Turkey. 

"Our passport is a burden; I was even stalled while getting a visa to Egypt, a fellow Arab country!" Khaled Alameddine laments. 

"Only people with fat bank accounts get visas everywhere, and even they get their applications turned down sometimes. I feel anxious whenever I have to apply for a visa, and it almost feels humiliating to know how frequently rejected we are," he points out. 

Alameddine is currently planning his fifth visit to Turkey, a country he deeply appreciates. 

"It's relatively cheap, a 3-night stay in a Lebanese hotel would cost almost as much as a 5-night vacation in Turkey! Istanbul has something for everyone: cheap, moderate, and expensive restaurants and shopping centers, historic areas and museums, parks, natural sites and spots, spas, a great nightlife scene, and a culture so rich, it can rival any capital in the world," he says. 

Photo Credits: Rita Saliba

What Alameddine loves most about the country is "The food, the ridiculous value for money, the efficient transport system, and just walking around. Istanbul forces you to walk and spurs you to discover its alleys."

"There are also lots of parks and public areas where you can see the many skylines of the city. One can ride in a ferry for 1$ (sic.) from Eminonu (on the European side) to Kadikoy (a posh area on the Asian side) while overlooking all the main sights the city offers. As a proud carnivore, I particularly enjoy the quality of Turkish lamb and beef in all their forms," he explains. 

Turkey is known for its food, though not everyone is a fan of it. For Maya Matta, who's already been four times, the food is probably her least favorite activity there. Speaking of activities, she's quite satisfied with the abundance of entertainment in all cities. They have parasailing, safari, and buggies, to name a few. Each city is known during specific seasons and has packages for tourists who are interested in outdoor fun or tours of historical sites.

Photo Credits: Rita Saliba

"Bands play in metro stations and main boulevards, chestnut, simit, and corn-on-the-cob sellers are all over the city, and most people there are nice and polite," Alameddine enthusiastically recalls from his previous trips.

"Despite all the valid concerns about political freedom and Erdogan's despotism, Istanbul feels like home away from home, and still enjoys more freedom than Beirut!" he emphasizes. 

If you can buy a plane ticket for as cheap as $150 and as expensive as $300, buy international brands for 50 to 80 percent off the original price, and enjoy a European-like experience while only an hour away from home, wouldn't you do it?