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North Cyprus - Health and safety
With Dr Felicity Nicholson
All visitors are entitled to free emergency medical treatment at state hospitals, and all blood banks have been HIV screened. Many expat residents and visitors praise the quality of the medical care they receive. Note that at present, there is no state system of GPs, though this is being mooted for the future. Chemist shops (Turkish eczane) are also capable of recommending medicines for common holiday illnesses, and many drugs such as antibiotics are available cheaply over the counter, with no need for prescriptions. Note that every edition of the English-language Cyprus Today newspaper lists duty chemists.
Travel clinics and health information
A full list of current travel clinic websites worldwide is available on www.istm.org. For other journey preparation information, consult www.travelhealthpro.org.uk (UK) or http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/ (US). Information about various medications may be found on www.netdoctor.co.uk/travel. All advice found online should be used in conjunction with expert advice received prior to or during travel.
The atmosphere in the north is very relaxed and friendly. The Turkish Cypriot people are by nature easy-going, and violent crime is very rare. The aggravating of foreigners by street sellers and shop owners, rampant in other parts of the Mediterranean, is blissfully absent here. If you ask for help, it will be offered willingly, but if you are just strolling and looking, you will be left to yourself. On Girne’s harbour front, a waiter will try and entice you into his establishment, but it gets no worse than that. Women alone are not propositioned and it is quite safe to walk around after dark. Your privacy is respected and people keep their distance.
A few years ago, an explosion in North Cyprus’s construction industry saw tens of thousands of workers arrive from mainland Turkey, many without permits, to fuel the demand for labour. Without legal status this workforce was open to exploitation and endured meagre wages and miserable living conditions. An inevitable rise in crime led to some headline cases in 2005, shaking the confidence of the local and expat population. In response, legislation was enacted in November 2006 making it considerably more difficult for unscrupulous employers to operate with illegal workers. In any case, the republic’s labour market reached saturation point with an estimated 60,000 mainland Turks currently working legally across all areas of the economy. A rise in crime statistics must be viewed in this context and statistically North Cyprus remains one of the safest holiday destinations, especially for those who take the usual common-sense precautions. Many expats willingly bear testimony to the feeling of safety and security felt here.
Although there are in excess of 30,000 troops from the Turkish army stationed in camps here, they are highly disciplined and under strict instructions to be courteous to foreigners. Should you inadvertently stray into a military area, you will be politely escorted out and redirected; notices saying ‘No photography’ should always be taken seriously, as should the reduced speed limits in force when driving past them: slow down, but don’t stop. There are many, many military camps and occasionally they are uprooted and moved elsewhere, making it pointless to list them all here. If visiting Mavi Koşk or the Martyr’s Museum in Lefkoşa, you will have to enter the surrounding camps and show your passport.
In general, you will find that the local people will bend over backwards to make you feel welcome. The Turkish Cypriots themselves make a hospitable nation, keen to please, happy to indulge in some banter and eager to ensure that visitors arcontent and generally delighted to share their knowledge and opinions with the curious tourist.
For foreign females, North Cyprus should be a relatively relaxed destination. Expat women and tourists report that they feel entirely safe walking around on their own after dark, there is no harassment of lone females and as a tourist destination it is untainted by the sort of expectations raised by the licentious behaviour of some visitors to other parts of the Mediterranean. Here it’s all about sun, sea and sand, not sun, sea and sex.
Levels of crime against the person are very low. Having said that, the usual precautions should be taken. The ‘entertainment’ spots to avoid are the seedy nightclubs that inhabit the roadside in usually out-of-town locations. These are basically lap-dancing joints, with prostitutes available for those who want them. It’s unlikely that female visitors would stumble into one of these, but most would be uncomfortable if they did so. There are also a couple of ‘motels’ in the old part of Girne that also seem to have an alternative, seedy purpose. Although the population is predominately Muslim, the dress sense for most Turkish Cypriot and Turkish women is secular. A significant proportion of the latter do wear headscarves, but you are unlikely to see a woman clad in a burqa. Visitors entering a mosque would do well to show respect by dressing appropriately; covered arms and shoulders, and avoidance of wearing short skirts, would show suitable sensitivity.
Out in the rural areas, it is a common sight to see small groups of men sitting about in the basic cafés that most villages seem to host. It is rare to see women in these establishments – presumably they are too busy working! There’s no reason why foreign females shouldn’t visit these village cafés, but you may be the only female present if you do.
Travellers with a disability
Wheelchair users will find that North Cyprus is not the most user-friendly of places. Investment in infrastructure to accompany increased tourism in recent years has meant better pavements, for example, but they are still far from easy to use and are also frequently used for the parking of cars. (On the rare occasions I saw a wheelchair during my time in North Cyprus, it was being pushed along the road, not the pavement.) Some hotels have installed ramps to allow access to bedrooms and public areas, but the situation is far from perfect. The Buzz magazine, published quarterly and freely available in bars and cafés, lists all the Girne restaurants, and listings indicate whether or not they cater for wheelchairs. What that actually means in practice is open to question, and it’s probably best to ask at the time of booking, if you have any particular concerns.
Taxis are usually Mercedes saloon cars, comfortable and spacious for the ablebodied, but not much use for those with limited mobility. Similarly, dolmuş do not adapt for wheelchairs.
Ethnic minority travellers
While North Cyprus may have been internationally isolated for over 35 years, this does not mean that it’s an ethnically homogeneous society. Perhaps half of the official population is from mainland Turkey, though your average visitor from Europe may not be able to distinguish between Turkish Cypriots and mainland Turks. Nevertheless, Turkish Cypriots are effectively a minority in their own territory. Ethnic minorities are very unlikely to face hostility or harassment while visiting North Cyprus. A small but significant proportion of the student population comes from sub-Saharan Africa, which means that coloured faces are by no means a rarity in North Cyprus. The hotel trade around Girne employs staff from the Indian sub-continent, so your receptionist may be from India, Pakistan or Bangladesh. (There is even an Asian cricket league in Lefkoşa.) Adding to the ethnic mix, the significant number of British expats has in recent years been joined by an influx of Russian property buyers.
Gay and lesbian travellers
Despite North Cyprus being nominally Islamic, homosexuality and bisexuality are far from unknown and are generally tolerated. There are some relaxed, gay-friendly bars, at least in Girne. Cypriots and Turks are a very tactile people, and you should not be surprised to see men hug and kiss each other (on the cheek) in public, so nothing in particular should be read into this. Ironically, other displays of public affection – such as kissing on the lips – even between straight partners, are frowned upon. Homosexuality is still illegal in the north, a legacy from the British era. Pressure groups are working to get this issue heard before parliament, but so far without any success.
The best advice seems to be to keep displays of your sexual tendencies, whether heterosexual or homosexual, low key when in public places.