Russia's ongoing war has decimated Ukraine's tourism industry

Madrid (AFP) - With its beaches targeted by Russian strikes and its hotels empty or closed since the start of the war, Ukraine has been deprived of an important source of income: tourism.

But Kyiv sees a revival of the industry as “crucial” for Ukraine’s post-war reconstruction.

“Once the war is over, tourism will play a key role in letting Ukraine recover quickly and rebooting its economy,” Mariana Oleskiv, head of Ukraine’s SATD tourism development agency, told AFP.

And although the war, which began last February, appears far from over, Ukraine is “already working” on plans to promote tourism, said Oleskiv, who is heading a Ukrainian delegation to FITUR, one of the world’s biggest tourism fairs taking place in Madrid from January 18-22.

“Of course, we don’t want to invite any tourists to come now: we don’t want them to take risks, even though in some areas of Ukraine the risk is very low,” said Oleskiv who has headed the SATD since March 2020.

“But the moment the country is safe, we want to be ready to invite people to come and visit,” she explained.

By then, she said, Kyiv hoped to “have enough partners to promote Ukraine” which could be “an important (tourist) destination”.

- A war-battered sector -

Until the 2010, Ukraine counted close to 20 million foreign visitors a year, mostly coming from Russia and Eastern Europe, UN World Tourism Organization figures show, making it the eighth most-visited country in Europe.

But that figure plummeted to some 12 million in 2014 with Moscow’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula – one of the country’s top tourist regions – and subsequent support for separatist rebels in the vast eastern Donbas region.

And since Russia invaded on February 24, 2022, visitor numbers have collapsed.

“There are still domestic tourists, for instance, in the Carpathian mountains” which has become a refuge for those seeking to flee the “stress” and destruction of the war or the “electricity cuts due to Russian attacks”, Oleskiv said.

But there are no foreign tourists – although the steady stream of international delegations, journalists and NGOs passing through Kyiv and the western city of Lviv has meant the hotel industry there “can survive more or less”, she said.

That’s not the case in places like the southern port city of Odessa, which lies close to the front line.

“It used to be a big touristic place, very dynamic” but today the situation is “much more difficult”, Oleskiv said.

- Image problem -

Before the crisis, tourism accounted for 2.0 percent of Ukraine’s economy and getting the sector back on track will be far from easy, requiring major investment.

“We will need time,” admits the tourism chief, while insisting Ukraine had strong potential for attracting visitors with its Black Sea beaches, its historical sites and family ski resorts.

In recent years, Kyiv has started to look towards new markets such as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states thanks to visa waivers and new airline routes in a strategy which could easily be expanded.

But with its railway network battered and its historic and cultural buildings destroyed, Ukraine will have to face the challenge of its image problem given its association with war.

“It’s important to show the consequences of this war and of the war crimes that Russia has committed,” Oleskiv said.

And when the war is over, it will be time to start promoting another image of Ukraine, she said: “The image of a brave people, of a people that keep on fighting” despite everything.