Why Telenovela Fans Are Heading to Istanbul

Latinx Turkish drama fans are heading to Istanbul.
Latinx Turkish drama fans are heading to Istanbul. HuffPost; Images: Getty Images

MariaRamirezwas disappointed. The 55-year old from Southern California had traveled to Istanbul, excited to live for a little while as the characters in all of her favorite Turkish dramas do. She was particularly inspired by scenes filled with delicious Turkish meals, in particular breakfast spreads that consist of feta, olives, sliced cucumbers, eggs, spreads, jams, tomatoes and bread.

“Every time I watch the telenovelas, I see them take out their cheeses, their olives, and so I go to the refrigerator and I do the same.” Ramirez says. “I make my plate and a glass of wine and I eat with them.”

But when she woke up in her hotel and headed down to finally experience the flavors herself, she was offered a standard American or British breakfast of eggs, bacon, sausages and potatoes. “I said ‘Aww! I was hoping for the Turkish breakfast!’” she recalls. “I didn’t get to have it until later.” 

It’s not a shock that Ramirez would get a breakfast that would be more at home on a Denny’s menu. Hotels often cater to British or American tourists who may fear the foreign and for some reason travel across countries to places foreign to then only eat exactly what’s available down their street.

But that may be changing in the country as Turkish dramas, known as dizi, continue their ascendance in popularity globally, with demand only growing, leading travelers to seek out a more authentic Turkish experience. This is particularly true for Latinx people, who have become one of the biggest audiences of Turkish dizi since 2014 when the drama “Binbir Gece” (“1001 Nights”) became a massive hit in Chile.

Even my mom, who has been talking nonstop about planning a trip to Istanbul next year, has been yapping about finding a 'novio guapo.'

In Mexico, Venezuela, Argentina and other Latin American countries as well as among Latines in the U.S., Turkish dramas have become appointment viewing. Major Spanish-language networks like Univision and Telemundo air dubbed versions nightly; streamers such as Netflix, Peacock, VIX and FuboTV offer a wide library of both dubbed and subtitled series; and video platforms like YouTube, Dailymotion, and Turkish123.com keep a large supply as well.

To call dizi a soap opera or telenovela would be incredibly reductive — no disrespect to both televised art forms that have gifted the culture secret twins and bouts of amnesia. These expansive dramas are 40+ episodes long and go for multiple seasons, with each episode holding a running time of two hours or even more.

They feature storylines that delve into the hardships, heartaches and triumphs of the human experience, but don’t expect a fairy tale ending: Dizi often have bittersweet, melancholic endings, like in the popular drama “Kara Sevda” (“Endless Love” or “Amor Eterno”), which concluded with the gut-wrenching death of a main character.

That’s all to say, audiences get deeply invested and have a never-ending supply of dramas to fill their nights. It’s easy to become fully engulfed, obsessed and entertained, as I saw with my mom, who, on a recent visit, wouldn’t put her phone down as she watched hours of Turkish dizi on YouTube. The only thing that briefly pried her from her “novelas Turcas” was a trip to TJ Maxx.

“As consumers, the U.S. Hispanic audiences seek more than mere entertainment; they yearn for representation, affirmation and connectivity,” says Barbara Musa Ruiz, vice president of programming strategy at TelevisaUnivision, reflecting on the success of dizi with Latinx audiences over the past few years. “They strive to see themselves mirrored in the stories they consume — and Turkish dramas have adeptly tapped into this longing.”

With dizi filmed mostly in Istanbul and other nearby locales, viewers also see parts of the world they may have never been exposed to. And now, via their phone and TV screens, they’re transported to the country’s picturesque coast, vicariously experiencing a new rich and vibrant culture. It’s only natural that some of them now want to see the real thing.

“I wanted to experience something different,” Ramirez says about choosing to travel to Turkey. “And it was something I’d already seen in the telenovelas. It was so beautiful.”

According to a 2023 report by the market research company Euromonitor International, Istanbul tops the list of cities around the globe with the most international arrivals, followed by London. Meanwhile, the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism reported in 2022 that about 377,000 Americans traveled to Turkey in the first half of the year, an influx of just over 77% from the first half of 2019.

And since 2018, travel from Latin America has increased exponentially, with Argentina and Brazil bringing the most LATAM tourists to Turkey. That those two countries are some of the biggest consumers of Turkish dizi doesn’t seem like a coincidence. Rates of travel have skyrocketed: Mexico’s rates alone increased by 103% per Turkey’s Culture and Tourism Ministry; and Chile and Venezuela’s rates rose just over 66% and 40%, respectively.

While medical tourism has made Turkey a major plastic surgery destination, with thousands dipping in for a fresh set of teeth, a head of thicker hair and a snatched waist, more and more people are being inspired by Turkish dizi to experience the romance. 

Before Ramirez visited Turkey in August, she joked that she hoped “to see if one of the heartthrobs over there would be interested in me! They’re very attractive, but to my bad luck, I didn’t find one.”

Who among us hasn’t daydreamed of a vacation fling that makes life feel like a sexy romcom, or a sweeping drama series in which a hunky god fights for your honor and loves you with a depth that can only be matched by the ocean despite all of the obstacles before you. 

Even my mom, who has been talking nonstop about planning a trip to Istanbul next year, has been yapping about finding a “novio guapo.” My sincerest apologies to the men of Turkey who may encounter this gray-haired, senior seductress in sensible espadrilles.

Maria Teresa Figueroa from Santa Ana, California, also saw how beautiful the landscape appeared while watching her dizi at home, and didn’t realize it was Turkey until her sister-in-law told her. “I told my husband, ‘Ay! I really want to go visit there!’” she says. 

Over the course of our conversation, Figueroa regaled me with the entire plot of her favorite dizi “Kadın” (“Woman,” or “Mujer” as it’s called on Univision) with the excitement of a friend sharing juicy gossip and mentioned any time she noticed a cultural custom in the characters she found fascinating, (“They always drink coffee in these little cups!”) and there were plenty. It intrigued her, and ever since she’s been yearning for a trip. And whenever she’s ready, there are options for her to get the full dizi experience.

“They strive to see themselves mirrored in the stories they consume — and Turkish dramas have adeptly tapped into this longing.”

Haron Yildirim runs Castle Travel, a tour company out of the coastal towns of Kusadasi and Pamukkale, and holds special tours of dizi locations. He started doing tours about five years ago after the popularity of the series “Diriliş: Ertuğrul” (“Resurrection: Ertuğrul”) and “Kara Para Aşk” (“Black Money Love”) led a group of American women to request a specialized tour.

“They fall in love to main characters [of “Black Money Love’]. I had no idea that much love for Turkish dizi in America,” he told me while driving back from scouting Alaçatı, a beach town that served as a location for the uber-popular dizi “Fatmagül’ün Suçu Ne?” (“What is Fatmagül’s Fault?”) for future tours. “Can you imagine American ladies speaking Turkish with me? They learned from dizi.”

“This trend underscores the significance of cultural exchange and collaboration within the media landscape,” Ruiz tells me. “By embracing international content and fostering partnerships with global producers, we can provide our audience with a broader, more diverse spectrum of programming that resonates authentically with their lives and experiences. In doing so, we not only meet the demands of our audiences but also enrich their viewing experience while nurturing a sense of inclusivity and cultural appreciation.”

Yildirim believes dizi have helped people better see both the “natural beauty of the country” and also the life people lead in a predominantly Muslim country, something especially important because, as he put it, “America has seen the Muslims as terrorists.” 

In the tour, people ask many questions,” Yildirim says. “We are explaining traditions, customs, religion, geography and history.”

While it may seem insignificant, there is power in bringing to screen the lives and stories of Turkish people to Latinx audiences, who perhaps see their struggles and similar traditions reflected to them. But it’s also as simple as Latinx audiences being compelled by great storytelling, regardless of where it’s from.

While there can be a level of exotification and fetishization from viewers who become tourists, dizi has still been instrumental in showing many people outside of the culture what life in Turkey is like, and encourages them to travel there, join a tour and then “understand us.” “We experience our emotions and disappointments very deeply,” Yildirim says. “We are appreciated because we reflect these emotions in our series.”

This travel trend is more than just a fascinating link between the romantic and emotional values of two different cultures. It reveals the void in our programming in the U.S. Hollywood continues to ignore Latinx audiences, despite the fact that as a demographic they’re responsible for 24%of both box office sales and streaming subscriptions.

That Turkey producers have been smart enough to see Latinx audiences as a viable investment, which creates real-life impact on tourism and overall cultural connection, lays bare the buying power of Latinx people. Hollywood should pay closer attention.