• Washington Post

As War Nears Crimea, Russian Occupiers Are Trying to Lure Tourists

REUTERS/Alexey Pavlishak
A view shows the premises of the Black Sea resort of Solnyshko, which is reportedly one of around 500 properties in the Crimean peninsula including some belonging to senior Ukrainian politicians and business figures that were nationalized by local Russian-installed authorities, in Yevpatoriya, Crimea, February 7, 2023.

KYIV, Ukraine – Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that Russia seized from Ukraine and illegally annexed in 2014, has been targeted in repeated drone attacks against naval targets, railway lines and oil depots.

Moscow accused Kyiv last month of firing British Storm Shadow missiles at a bridge that connects the 10,000-square-mile landmass to southern Ukraine.

But despite the increasing insecurity – and speculation that, as Ukraine steps up its counteroffensive, Kyiv could attempt to take the peninsula back – occupying authorities insist there’s no cause for concern.

The summer tourist season is on.

Russian social media is awash in advertising for cheap holiday packages and homes to rent: “For those who dream of the sea!! Crimean Holidays invites you to spend your summer break on the beaches of the Azov Sea!” gushes one announcement. “Sprawling beaches, clear seas and a developing hospitality infrastructure will not leave you indifferent!”

“The whitest beaches in Crimea!” proclaims another, for a Cuban-style beach bar. “Relax and enjoy your summer in style.”

With miles of shoreline, craggy, limestone plateaus and rows of poplar trees, Crimea has long been a favorite holiday destination for Russian elites and ordinary citizens alike. Since Czarist times its seaside sanitariums and holiday resorts, popularized in the works of Anton Chekhov and others, have provided a break from the hustle and bustle of Moscow and other cities.

But 16 months after Russia invaded Ukraine, the war is threatening to destroy the tourism on which Crimea depends.

Last summer, the peninsula was shaken by the bombing of an air base and an explosion that blew out a section of the one bridge that connects Crimea to mainland Russia. The collapse of the Kakhovka Dam in June could harm Crimea’s freshwater supply.

Still, the Russian-appointed head of what Moscow claims is the Republic of Crimea is projecting calm. There’s no land invasion on the horizon, Sergei Aksyonov told a local television station, and authorities have received new equipment to detect enemy drones from farther away. There are now no problems crossing the Kerch Bridge, he said, and the summer holiday season will be going ahead as planned.

Mikhail Razvozhayev, the governor of Sevastopol, the largest city in Crimea, said the dam collapse would “not affect the city’s water supply in any way.”

One Crimean tour guide told The Washington Post that tourists were continuing to visit, and “always” will. “We are not afraid of anything here,” Moryachok said. “Here is the safest place in the country in terms of defense and weapons.”

He spoke on the condition that he be identified only by his social media username for fear of repercussions for speaking with foreign media.

“This is not propaganda,” he continued. “You would not ask such questions if you spent a single day in Luhansk, Donetsk and Crimea and talked with local residents,” he said, naming regions in eastern Ukraine that have been occupied by Russia since 2014 and have, in fact, suffered near-constant violence and insecurity for years.

But data suggest the official optimism isn’t working. Only 1 percent of Russian hotel bookings this year have been made in Crimea, according to the online booking portal Ostrovok.Ru, down from 3 percent last year and 19 percent the year before. Sixty percent of Crimean tourism businesses lost money last year, official data show, with combined losses of $10 million as tourist revenue dropped by around a third.

“There are indeed fewer people in Crimea than usual,” said Nikita Krimskiy, a tour guide in Yalta. “Many people were intimidated by military news and various ‘fakes.’ They have changed their plans and decided to not go to Crimea this season.” But despite the attacks, he said, summer was “in full swing” and the beaches are crowded with people.

“Our guests read and watch news so our booking department gets a lot of phone calls with many questions – about whether the situation is safe here and so forth,” said Anna, a marketing manager who works with hotels and tourism agencies in Crimea. She spoke on the condition that she be identified only by her first name for fear of repercussions for talking with foreign media.

She said many visitors, concerned by the recent attacks, were now canceling their summer bookings at the last minute

In the absence of flights to the peninsula, Russian Railways has increased the number of trains to Crimea and added more car inspection points on the bridge to reduce wait times for drivers. For some, it still takes two or three days to reach the peninsula from Russia.

Some all-inclusive hotels have lowered their prices by as much as 60 percent. Others have simply decided not to open this summer.

The government has backed efforts to promote an image of normality, such as a summer camp in the resort town of Yevpatoria for children from Belgorod near Russia’s border with Ukraine, a region that has come under intense shelling and drone attacks in recent weeks.

Maya Lomidze, the executive director of Russia’s Association of Tour Operators, said Crimea could be among Russians’ top five holiday destinations this year.

“The dynamics, of course, will not be the same as in 2021, when Crimea broke its tourism record,” she said in a recent interview with Russian media. “The tourist flow in 2023 will be approximately 30 percent lower than last year.”

“But people can get to Crimea,” she continued. “Moreover, Crimea is the only region of all Russian regions that, compared to last year, did not raise prices, but lowers them.”

Anna said a community of loyal visitors will return every year – no matter what.

Elena, a 55-year-old teacher in Moscow, said her family plans to visit this summer, as they do every year. Speaking on the condition that she be identified only by her first name, she said she loves the peninsula’s nature and convenience. She often travels there on one of the “very comfortable and affordable trains.”

“As for possible problems with food, water and electricity – I am not worried at all. There have been different times and even worse times,” she said. “I used to go to Crimea in the Soviet times and before 2014 and after.”

“Of course this year the general situation is disturbing but there is faith in prudence, humanity, and in God,” she added.

Alyona, a 52-year-old an office manager in a real estate company, plans to return with her family for two weeks this summer. Vacationing in Crimea, she said, renews her for the rest of the year.

“I am not concerned about safety issues. I am sure that Crimea is very well protected, nothing could possibly happen there,” she said. “Yes, I realize that the special military operation is underway and drones attack various cities, even Moscow, and there might be shortages of water or electricity. But somehow, I don’t think something scary could happen in Crimea. Everything will be fine!”