Gizem Baburhan stepped into a tiny house on wheels she rented among Aegean vineyards and saw the future of Turkey’s coronavirus-hit tourism industry.
“This minimalist life offered us priceless peace,” said Baburhan. “I hope in the future, we will own a tiny house and tour the world with a home on our backs.”
The tiny house movement – a fad that gained momentum in the U.S. in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis – appears to have caught on in Turkey during the pandemic.
The unimposing wood and composite metal structures resemble spruced-up sheds on wheels or sawn-off trailer homes. Yet the Turkish firms that make them say they have barely been able to keep up with demand in the past year.
YAKO Groups CEO Galip Ölmez said he received only “sporadic orders” after introducing the concept to Turkey in 2017.
“If we compare 2020 with the previous year, the orders have increased twentyfold,” Ölmez said without disclosing precise numbers.
Architect Pelin Düştegör said most of the clients of her Casa Lokomotif tiny house company were “from the tourism industry looking for camping concepts.”
“We had just under 250 orders in all of 2019 and this shot up to 4,500 a month in 2020,” Düştegör told Agence France-Presse (AFP). “There has been tremendous interest.”
The pandemic slashed Turkey’s tourism revenues by two-thirds last year, reflecting the heavy toll from rolling global travel restrictions, stay-home orders and the closures of restaurants and hotels that peaked in the second quarter of 2020.
Last year, the sector’s revenues dropped 65.1% year-on-year to $12.06 billion from $34.5 billion in 2019.
The number of foreigners visiting the country in 2020 fell 71.7% year-on-year and exceeded 12.7 million, according to Culture and Tourism Ministry data.
Turkey is perhaps best known to global tourists as the place of golden beaches and all-inclusive luxury hotels.
But the shock of the pandemic and suspicions that people will shy away from crowds for years to come have some Turkish tourism firms revising their plans.
Düştegör said the tiny houses’ popularity with tourism companies was rooted in their low investment cost and the potential to turn a profit within three and a half years.
It is easier and far less risky to invest in a scattering of little mobile homes than it is to maintain or build a hotel.
The houses can also be parked on lands without a building permit because they have the status of a vehicle in Turkey.
Düştegör said people between their late 30s and early 40s also tended to buy them as an investment and then rent them out.
“I can easily see more camping stations and tiny house resorts opening in the future,” she said.
Çağlar Gökgün rents out the tiny house he bought and parked in the middle of a vineyard on the Aegean Sea.
“People will want to stay in nature in small groups rather than at a 500-person hotel,” Gökgün predicted. “No one will want to wait in the queue for an open buffet.”
Baburhan said the New Year's holiday she spent with her husband at Gökgun’s vineyard home was like being in “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.”
“We didn't know what to expect at first,” she admitted. “But we found ourselves in a tiny, fully-fledged house in the heart of a wonderful vineyard. We quickly got used to the house and felt like we have been living there for years.”
Ölmez said his firm produces homes ranging from 15-40 square meters (160-430 square feet) – about the size of a small studio or a hotel room.
Their prices range from $17,000 (TL 125,000) to $30,000. It is hard to buy a small house in Istanbul for less than $70,000.
Clients who want to put down a tiny house on land they already own are responsible for hooking up the water and electricity while the company builds the home and takes care of the furnishing and design.
“We see tiny houses as the future of tourism in Turkey,” Ölmez told AFP in his tiny house showroom on the outskirts of Istanbul. Demand for his homes is also growing in places such as Dubai, he added.
Architect Düştegör enjoys spending a couple of days a week in her own home overlooking the Marmara Sea about 100 kilometers (60 miles) from Istanbul.
“This garden here is actually my living room,” she said as a cock crowed in her garden. “You observe insects, flowers blossoming and seasons. This is a journey to yourself, you purify yourself from extravagance.”
Ölmez said a year of lockdowns has prompted many to reassess the benefit of spending time in concrete apartment blocks.
“Humanity has begun to return to its roots,” said Ölmez as two young women checked out a cabin on wheels in his showroom.
“People should not be scared of minimalism. It does not shrink life but liberates it," he said.