Big, diverse, and largely undiscovered, Ukraine is one of Europe’s last genuine travel frontiers and, before the Russian invasion, a rapidly growing tourist hotspots.
From being settled by Vikings over a thousand years ago to the current conflict with Russia, Ukraine’s history is a litany of tragedies following one on the heels of another. Yet this ‘difficult past’ is what has shaped the indomitable spirit of the Ukrainian people and continues to fuel their fearless desire to cast off the yoke of foreign oppression.
Following the 2014 Maidan Revolution which drove out an authoritarian president, Ukraine made significant progress on domestic reform and set its sights on becoming a thriving member of the European Community. This acted as a catalyst to drive renewed interest and tourism to the country – at least until the Russians invaded.
Europe’s last genuine travel frontier was finally poised for rapid growth following the debilitating effect of the Covid pandemic. But what impact will the Russian invasion have on that growth trajectory, and what does the future now hold for Ukraine’s tourism industry?
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With low-cost travel and accommodations, pre-war Ukraine was attractive to both European and overseas travelers. Many of the historic cities are both rich in culture and heritage sites while still offering all the modern amenities visitors expect from European destinations.
In 2008, the country welcomed upward of 30 million visitors, but following the conflict with Russia in 2014 in Eastern Ukraine, this number began to drop. Just 3 million tourists visited the country in 2021, and given the ongoing war with Russia, that number is expected to drop even further by end of 2022.
Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, was first settled in the 5th century as a center for trade. Located on the Dnieper River, one of the longest rivers in Europe, it allowed for easy movement of trade goods. The city has a highly developed riverfront with restaurants and galleries. River tours and paddling are especially popular among tourists and locals alike for viewing the fascinating scenery of the Right and Left Bank of Kyiv. Sights include the stunning domes of Kyiv-Pechersl Lavra, the beautiful Vudybetsky Monastery, the magnificent St. Andrew’s Church, and the Magdeburg Rights Column.
Kyiv acted as the gateway between Northern Europe and the Mediterranean Sea. In the 9th century, the Vikings conquered the region, setting up the Kievan Rus, the world’s first Slavic state. Invaded by the Mongols in the 13th century, Kyiv fell from primacy as the symbolic center of Kievan Russia, but rebuilt itself and remained a major city power for centuries before eventually becoming the capital of the newly independent Ukraine in 1991 when the country declared independence from the Soviet Union. With such a long and intriguing history, the city is a magnet for history buffs and romantics.
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In the western part of the country, you will find the Carpathian Mountains, giving home to outdoor tourism such as hiking, backpacking, and white water rafting. In winter the mountains are also home to many ski resorts, making Ukraine’s tourism industry a year-round affair.
The South of Ukraine borders the Black Sea. In the Odesa region, Black Sea beaches before the war were especially popular with Russian tourists. Historical and cultural sites in Izmail, Chornomorsk, Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi, Vilkovo, Kiliya, and Shabo all attracted drove of tourists along with large cities to the North like Kharkiv.
Efforts were also underway prior to the invasion to position Tuzly Estuaries National Nature Park, which hugs the coast of the Black Sea between the Danube and Dniester rivers, as an ecotourism destination. Boasting a network of 13 estuaries, the National Park is home to 262 species of birds.
A view shows a school building destroyed by a Russian missile strike in Kramatorsk, Ukraine, July 21, 2022. (Reuters Photo)
Today, beaches in places like Odesa are off-limits as the Ukrainian military has rigged them with mines to fend off any attempted landings by Russian forces, and Russian airstrikes have left many tourist hotspots in the country destroyed. Inbound tourists are now only journalists, people from international relief organizations, refugees, and foreign soldiers fighting in solidarity with the country’s military.
Ukraine’s tourism industry is contributing to the war effort the best way it knows how. Tour buses that once moved tourists around the country now transport soldiers to the frontline and the injured ones to makeshift hospitals. Tour operators, restaurateurs, and hoteliers are all using their well-established network to provide catering and assistance for the military.
Others helped refugees relocate from dangerous regions to more peaceful ones in Ukraine or abroad. Hotel workers in the southern and western regions organized the transit and housing of refugees, and in places like Lviv, tourism and hospitality businesses are at the forefront of delivering humanitarian cargo donated from different countries, including food, medicine, hygiene products, clothing and so on. Underlining the vital role of Ukraine’s tourism industry, not only in peacetime and for marketing the country as a tourist attraction, but also in crisis periods.
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It is safe to say that the Russian invasion has decimated Ukraine and its tourism sector, but as the war reaches a crucial point, thoughts are already turning, as they did as early as 1943 during the Second World War, to how the country can get back on its feet again once hostilities are over.
Ukraine will have a substantial opportunity to attract more peaceful ‘invaders’ (global tourists) in the wake of the war, but the tourism industry must concentrate efforts on those countries with a high ‘propensity to travel’ and an equally high ‘disposition to spend in order to maximize the potential.
Odesa is particularly well suited to this, having adequate airport infrastructure (as long as it remains intact) and a plethora of visitor attractions. Places like Yaremcha, owing to its secluded location in Western Ukraine, have experienced minimal damage from the war, so will likely be one of the first destinations to see a return to normality. As we’ve seen from the news, it’s largely the big cities and the strategic hotspots that have come under heavy shelling.
Photo: Viktor Bystrov/Unsplash
Meaning that when Ukraine reopens for visitors, or to put it more appropriately, tourists feel safe enough to venture into the country – we can expect that heightened emphasis will be placed on the more rural regions where the fighting has been less severe. Injecting much-needed foreign cash into the post-war economy in the process without putting excessive tourist pressure on areas that are focusing on rebuilding.
Development of new target markets will also be crucial, Ukraine was one of the destinations most favoured by Russians until their country’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and hostilities in Donbas began. Their numbers have since decreased by 95%. Regaining that lost cash flow from new markets will require a concerted and targeted marketing effort by the country’s tourism sector. Ukraine’s new global standing as a ‘defensive perimeter’ for the world against Russian aggressions might help with this as people who struggled to find the country on a map a year ago are now much more familiar with its location and history. Combined with many people wanting to help Ukraine, a tourism boost is highly likely after the war.
Photo: Rostislav Artov/Visit Belfast
Ukraine is still in the midst of a horrific and unjustified conflict, one which is inflicting tremendous damage on the country’s people and infrastructure. The impact of the Ukraine war on its tourism industry and the country as a whole will be felt for generations after the last bullet is fired, but as it has so often done in the past, Europe’s last genuine travel frontier will no doubt rise again like a phoenix from the ashes of this latest difficult episode in its storied history. And the country’s tourism industry as it is doing now will be there to play its part in Ukraine’s recovery.