A rich kid from Russia is getting married in a five-star hotel. The raucous party will feature caviar, rare seafood and enough bottles of fancy champagne to satisfy the directors of a rap video. Dozens of jugglers and magicians will perform—and few, if anyone, will sleep that night.
This may sound like a wedding on the Las Vegas strip, but the nuptials are actually taking place in Istanbul, where over the past four years, the sons and daughters of the international jet-set crowd have been coming to tie the knot. Indeed, if you’re part of the wealthy elite in Russia, India, Europe or the Middle East, apparently the shores of the Bosphorus are the perfect place to get hitched.
Roughly 111,000 people were married in Istanbul last year, second only to Vegas, the wedding capital of the Western world. A major reason, it seems, is freedom. Istanbul isn’t exactly sin city, but despite the creeping role of religion in public life, it still has a reputation for being liberal and cosmopolitan, especially in the conservative Middle East.
“Istanbul has become an attractive brand as a city,” says Meltem Bayazit Tepeler, the owner of a company called K&M Events, which specializes in international weddings. “People want…to drink alcohol or have their female and male guests sit together.”
Tepeler says her customers are mostly Muslims from Iran, Russia, Pakistan, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, as well as European countries such as Greece. Most tend to spend six figures—in dollars and even euros—and each group brings their own traditions to Turkey. The Saudis, for example, aren’t partial to Russian-style debauchery, and often insist on drinking glasses that have never come into contact with alcohol.
Istanbul’s wedding planners are happily counting the proceeds from the influx of betrothed 1-percenters. Yesim Insel, the director of catering for Istanbul’s luxurious Four Seasons hotels, says wealthy foreigners now account for about 16 percent of her employer’s wedding receptions, and that the proportion is growing. Most of these weddings happen away from the public eye, and organizers have to sign contracts assuring clients—many of whom are oil barons and members of Middle Eastern royal families—that they’re going to keep things discreet.
That, along with the booze, seems to be a big part of the appeal. “If you are coming from the East,” Tepeler says, “Istanbul represents a more free and stylish life with only a flight away.”