Monday, August 24, 2015

Farewell Crimea: Ukraine Holiday Makers Flock To Odessa

ODESSA, Ukraine -- Irina Chapravska has just snapped up the last room of a luxury hotel that costs 300 euros ($335) a night and offers a panoramic view of Ukraine's serene Black Sea coastline.


Pretty girls  sunbathe on one of the many beaches in southern Ukrainian city of Odessa.

But this is not Crimea, whose pebble beaches have long been a favoured summer destination for millions across the former Soviet Union -- until, that is, Russia controversially seized the peninsula from Ukraine last year.

The senior company manager and swarms of tourists around her are lounging instead in the historic port of Odessa, 150 kilometres (93 miles) to the west.

"There is no more Crimea. So here I am in Odessa instead," Chapravska said from behind a huge pair of sunglasses by a shimmering rooftop pool.

She and her nine-year-old son first caught the rays in Cyprus and Italy's island of Sardinia before heading to Ukraine's biggest port, a culturally diverse and thriving mecca.

Most of New York's ex-Soviet Jewish diaspora came from this city, which latterly has drawn younger generations seeking out its rather wild nightlife.

But neither Odessa nor other noteworthy destinations farther west -- from the ancient cultural capital Lviv to Ukraine's patch of the Carpathian Mountains -- have ever witnessed an influx of revellers similar to the one testing their creaky infrastructure today.

Soviet-era boarding houses and basic flats are being rented out at daily rates approaching a third of Ukrainians' average monthly incomes.

But Konstantin -- an investment banker who prefers to keep his last name private and like many Ukrainians faces obstacles obtaining quick travel visas to EU states -- seemed to care less about the price than he did about heading to Ukraine's latest hotspot.

"We are young. We want to eat out and go clubbing," he said while splashing around in the hotel pool with his son.

"Odessa has everything you need."

- 'Tourism boom' - 

Not all analysts agree.

The cost of rooms have tripled in some places from last year.

Yet the roads remain just as potholed and service can at times recall the surliest days of communism -- an era when smiles were at a premium and group discipline took precedence over personal preference. 

"You can probably describe what is happening as a tourism boom," said Association of Ukrainian Tour Operators President Ihor Holubakha.

But he quickly added that the domestic industry was growing because those who no longer viewed Crimea as an option were trying to save money and avoid going abroad.

"Unfortunately, the Ukrainian economy is not sending out the right signals and people are worried about the changes ahead."

Ukraine's 16-month separatist crisis in the country's east bordering Russia has paralysed industry and is likely to see the economy shrink by nearly 10 percent this year.

The hryvnia currency has lost about 65 percent of its value against the dollar since the war started -- a drop that has put even the relatively inexpensive resorts of Turkey, just across the Black Sea, out of reach.

Mirabo travel agency owner Svitlana Matviychuk said the number of tourists going to foreign destinations "is down at least 50 percent" since the war's start.

"We have seen a clear toughening of the EU visa regime," she added.

"This has also had its effect."

- Crimean struggles -

But Odessa's gain is a loss for vast numbers of Crimeans who built their lives around selling ice cream and renting rooms to vacationers from Ukraine's mainland and various parts of Russia.

The region is now only accessible to Russians by air and a ferry service woefully ill-prepared to handle the hundreds of thousands who might have travelled by train -- a service cut by Ukraine at the end of last year.

Crimea's deputy premier Ruslan Balbek said the resort was preparing to welcome three million guests this summer.

But independent analysts put the figure closer to two million -- less than half that seen when the region was still part of Ukraine.

And much of Ukraine's own tourism industry is trying to turn the change of luck into a permanent habit for families looking at their summer options.

Odessa's Nemo Dolphinarium -- a glass-plated round building that now also offers fitness classes and even birthday package deals -- has never been more packed with awed kids and their delighted parents.

"We have more and more tourists from all over Ukraine because of the (economic) situation," said Nemo spokeswoman Olha Polyakova.

The hotels in cities like Lviv and Odessa are also doing their best to attract better spending families and not just the relatively thrifty young.

Many now offer special course instructors and cheerful tour group leaders as well as nannies that can free up parents to enjoy time on their own.

"The air is fresh, the food is good, and there are massages and a pool," cooed southern Kherson region native Maria Ostapenko. 

"The parents are happy," the Nemo's spokeswoman Polyakova agreed.

Source: AFP

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