Istanbul taxi problem pits Gulf tourists against Turkey’s locals

Standing in Istanbul’s main Taksim Square, Abubakir raises his hand and a yellow taxi instantly appears. Happy to have closed the lucrative deal, the driver helps the family with their bags as Abubakir, his wife and their two children take their seats for the ride. Meanwhile, a Turkish woman waiting for a taxi on the street sighed in exasperation.

Taxi drivers picking up foreigners over local customers has long been a common sight in Istanbul’s tourist hotspots. Videos showing drivers not accepting Turkish customers and choosing Arabs over Turks have been prevalent on social media for the past months. A TikTok user went further to prove the point by carrying an empty luggage to look like a tourist while trying to flag down a taxi.

Locals who often refuse rides see tourists, especially Arabs, as scapegoats for Istanbul’s taxi shortage. The reason is simple: a shortage of cabbies forces drivers to adopt a demand-driven approach, in which they require higher fees despite a fixed rate per kilometer. While foreigners pay up to ten times the actual price and give big tips, locals, struggling with a weakening Turkish lira, stick to the prices set by the authorities.

But this scenario is changing now as many tourists from the Gulf are opting for private transfer services to avoid being scammed by taxi drivers.

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“I don’t mind paying an extra tip, but on our last visit they crossed the line. A taxi driver asked us to pay the dollar amount written on the taxi meter,” said 20-year-old Sadan Hayat, who was on holiday with her relatives. “So we booked a private driver with a black van. Our second trip so that we don’t have to haggle with taxi drivers.

Istanbul has long suffered from a taxi shortage. Despite the population growing from 7.5 million to 16 million, the number of cabs in Turkey’s megacity has remained roughly the same for the past 32 years.

There aren’t many alternatives

Furthermore, any alternatives are blocked by the powerful taxi lobby, which refuses to lose the monopoly. The Istanbul Taxi Drivers Association took Uber to court in 2019 and the case led to a ban on the app in the country. Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu has made several attempts to end this monopoly by introducing licensing of new cab plates. However, the issue has become controversial as members of the ruling Justice and Development Party in the municipality have continuously blocked efforts to address the megacity’s transport problem.

Uber lost, but now the taxi lobby is being challenged by companies offering private transport services and is starting to lose an important customer – the Gulf tourist – to the army of black vans.

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“The number of Arab customers decreased last month. We have long lines here; Now they all use black Vitos,” says Bilal Demir, 54, sitting on a bench at a taxi hub in Bebek. A 10-minute stand in front of a restaurant in the area confirms his claim. Black vans pick up and drop off customers from the area’s fancy cafes. Cab drivers approach those waiting for their drivers. go, but they often return empty-handed.

Waiting for her driver outside a popular breakfast cafe in Hisar, 40-year-old Bibi says she pays $100 a day to rent a private car with the driver. “It’s worth the peace of mind. At least not having to haggle with the drivers every time,” said a Kuwaiti woman on vacation with her sister and two daughters.

Taxi drivers blame the low fares. “Istanbul has the cheapest cab fees in the world. Anywhere, taking a cab is a luxury. Here, it’s available to everyone,” complains a taxi driver, who believes it’s normal for drivers to be self-interested and pick and choose their customers. “From 2022 to January 2023, only 29.10% has been increased, while the minimum wage has increased by 54.64%. We are also affected by inflation. It is not right to increase taxi fees so little,” he said.

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In an effort to protect tourists from being scammed, the police often conduct checks on drivers through checkpoints in tourist areas. Pressure on scammers has increased recently, with police conducting undercover operations to trap overcharging drivers. In a recent incident, a cab driver was fined for overcharging an undercover police officer who introduced himself as an Arab tourist.

In addition to police operations, Istanbul Municipality’s continued efforts to crack down on the taxi lobby monopoly have been successful. Mayor Imamoglu recently announced the conversion of more than 2,000 minibuses into taxis. The service will start in February and aims to make the lives of Istanbulites and visitors easier.

Drivers of the city’s classic yellow taxi cabs, which once repulsed Istanbulites, may no longer have the luxury of picking and choosing their customers. But will these efforts bring back tourists who have already switched to alternatives? The black Mercedes-Benz Vito can already be seen in Istanbul’s busy traffic, and it shows no sign of backing down.


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