What’s New in the Eastern Mediterranean for 2016
Greece, Croatia, and Turkey remain popular with travelers, and present some important transportation and sightseeing changes for 2016.
Greece is one of Europe's great destinations, but concern about its financial crisis and the thousands of Syrian refugees entering the country is impacting travelers' vacation plans. The country is indeed digging out of a massive economic hole, and I wouldn't want to be a Greek worker counting on a comfortable retirement — but its fiscal woes should hardly be noticed by visitors. And although Greece happens to be receiving the bulk of Europe's refugees from the eastern end of the Mediterranean, it's my experience — from recent personal travel and from the many tours my company guided there throughout 2015 — that the refugees' plight rarely intersects with the Greece tourists experience. When these worlds do meet, most vacationers face little more than an inconvenience (while getting a valuable firsthand peek at the realities of our world).
Tourists traveling to Greece will experience some higher prices next year, as the Greek government tries to pay down its debt. Specific increases include ticket-price hikes to the great archaeological sites and museums, and new hotel taxes that will be passed on to visitors. Some good news in Athens: The wonderful Acropolis Museum, previously closed on Mondays, is now open seven days a week.
Two hours by boat from Athens, the idyllic island of Hydra has long struggled with its water supply problem, as it has no natural water source, aside from some private cisterns. Until recently, islanders had to barge in fresh water every day. But with recent help from the European Union, Hydra now has a plant for desalinating sea water, giving the island a reliable water supply and drinkable tap water.
On the Cycladic island of Mykonos, a cheap shuttle boat now runs between the New Port and Mykonos town, giving people arriving by ferry from Athens or Santorini an easy way to reach the old town. Near Mykonos, the archaeological site of Delos, reachable only by boat, is more accessible than ever to sightseers. It's now open every day (previously closed on Mondays), and in peak season, travelers may be able to tour the site later in the day, when the sun is more forgiving, thanks to a late-afternoon ferry that returns in the early evening.
North of Greece, in Croatia, transportation upgrades are making a big difference for travelers. A new express bus from the remote Plitvice Lakes National Park runs frequently in summer, connecting to Zagreb in the north and to the city of Split in the south. Visitors can now connect several coastal destinations by seaplane (European Coastal Airlines). And traveling by boat in Croatia is easier now that you can buy tickets online for national ferry operator Jadrolinija's catamarans and for smaller Krilo catamarans...meaning travelers no longer need to get up early and wait in line at ticket offices. (Tickets can sell out quickly, though, so book well ahead in busy times.) Boat service has been revamped in Dalmatia, and Dubrovnik is now better connected by fast catamarans.
At the far eastern end of the continent, Istanbul straddles Europe and Asia. Though not a national capital, it is Turkey's largest and most touristed city. And several upgrades are making things easier for sightseers.
The city will soon offer a revamped set of sightseeing passes. Costing about $30 for three days (or about $40 for five days) and covering the city's top sights, these passes can save substantial money. They can also save you a lot of time, as they allow you to bypass ticket lines. If a pass doesn't pencil out for your plans, you can still avoid long ticket lines at top sights by purchasing tickets online — I'd at least book ahead for Hagia Sophia (closed on Mondays starting in May 2016) and Topkapı Palace.
At Topkapı Palace, the Imperial Treasury may be closed for renovation throughout 2016, but the stark interior of Hagia Irene, an early Christian church on the palace grounds, has reopened. Much of the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum has reopened after extensive renovation.
A third bridge over the Bosphorus strait — the Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge — is still under construction, but should finally open sometime this year. And while the Karaköy Limanı cruise ship port remains under renovation (expected to last until the end of 2017), cruise ships are docking at Salıpazarı Limanı, located in the New District.
From the Eastern Mediterranean to France to the US, countries throughout the world are being rattled by economic challenges, an influx of migrant workers, and perceived threats from terrorists. As a result, right-wing and nationalist political forces are emboldened. With the political direction of these countries in flux, a fascinating part of traveling these days is talking to people to see how they are dealing with fear, fear-mongering, security interests, and anxiety, all of which are threatening long-treasured societal norms.
You can either stand in line at the Topkapı Palace in Istanbul...or walk right in with a sightseeing pass purchased from one of the less-crowded sights. (photo: Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli)
Travelers can now visit the ancient Greek site of Delos seven days a week and sometimes even into the early evening. (photo: Cathy Lu)