Tourism takes a nosedive in Crimea
- 8 August 2014
- From the section Magazine
It's been the year everything changed in Crimea. The sudden appearance of armed men in green uniforms, which little by little led to Russian annexation, new flags, new passports - and Western sanctions. For the peninsula's main industry, tourism, this has been catastrophic.
Natasha grabs her little boy by the hand and pulls him on to the boat. She hurries down into the cabin looking for the best seats. But it seems she is spoiled for choice - rows of empty blue benches stretch out in front of us. We appear to be the only people on board.
"There are definitely fewer people this year," she says. "It's much easier finding a sunbed on our beach - normally you have to queue for them."
Natasha, a teacher from St Petersburg, is a frequent visitor but says she was particularly keen to come this summer following her country's controversial annexation of the peninsula.
"Russian blood flows through Crimea, and has done for centuries," she tells me.
"This place is linked to our memories of childhood and youth. It's the place many of us first fell in love. So you see, getting Crimea back is not about territory - more about regaining somewhere very close to our hearts."
But Russia's land-grab of Crimea from Ukraine has, as Natasha points out, led to a drastic fall in the number of visitors this year - and tourism is the mainstay of the region's economy.
Western sanctions mean foreign cruise liners are no longer docking in the Crimean ports of Yalta or Sevastopol. Most Ukrainians are staying away on principle and long before the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner in eastern Ukraine, the normal overland route for Russian tourists was cut off by fighting.
The latest round of European sanctions has also just grounded Dobrolet, a new budget airline which flew here four times a day from Moscow.
The Kazantip Festival, meanwhile, which has run for 20 years and attracted thousands of young Russian ravers and Ibiza-style DJs from all over Europe, has been cancelled this year, and the Koktebel Jazz Festival has decamped to Odessa.
We get out of the boat at one of Crimea's top tourist sights, a neo-Gothic folly called the Swallow's Nest built by a lovesick German oil magnate about a century ago. I walk past a fading poster of the little castle perched on a cliff top - it is the front cover of National Geographic magazine, which describes the Crimean Peninsula as "a diamond suspended from the south coast of Ukraine" and lists it as one of world's top destinations for 2013.
But that was last year. Now the crowds have gone and the souvenir sellers who line the steps leading up to the monument seem desperate for my roubles. As I browse the postcards and try on sun hats, I spot a T-shirt featuring a giggling Vladimir Putin and his Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev. Underneath the caption reads "They're frightening us with sanctions!"
Many tourists from the ex-USSR stay at sanatoria rather than conventional hotels. They drink the local mineral water - a bit salty, with a tang of rotten eggs - and take health cures in between seeing the sights and lounging on the beach.
Vyacheslav Stoyanov, the doctor in charge at Natasha's sanatorium, shows me some of the treatments on offer. There are people wearing masks and hooked up to tubes having their lungs cleaned out. Next door to them, patients sit in special caves filled with locally mined salt which also helps to cure breathing problems, while upstairs a woman has four leeches attached to her right ear. "It hurts a bit when they are sucking the blood," she admits. But the nurse who eventually removes the pulsating black creatures and dunks them in a jar of chlorine, says the procedure helps to prevent deafness.
Then Dr Stoyanov whisks aside a plastic curtain to reveal a large, hairy man in a bath. A white coated woman is bent over him, rolling an implement along his shoulders and spine.
"It feels great," the man says. "For me there are only two types of massage worth having - Thai and Crimean water-massage. You won't find anything better."
He adds that he is a Moscow-based businessman and that he has come on holiday here to improve his health but also for patriotic reasons to, "support his brothers" as he puts it.
Every visitor counts. Revenue is drastically down from last year - two-thirds of the rooms at the sanatorium are empty and I'm told it's the same picture across Crimea.
Dr Stoyanov admits he's worried.
"We've advertised what we offer in the best possible way. In catalogues, at tourist exhibitions, we have agreements with tour operators and firms. Why is there is such a drop this year? Evidently it's because of politics."
He is reluctant to discuss the annexation but is blunt about its impact: "What is there to be glad about if today we see that we have no work?"
Another problem is that Russian tourists are becoming more discriminating. On the Yalta promenade I meet a couple with small children from Nizhny Novgorod, 250 miles east of Moscow. Yulia is a lawyer, her husband Sergei works for the police. Like many Russians of their generation they are well-travelled - they've holidayed in the Emirates, Crete and Goa in India.
It's the first time they've come to Crimea as a family. Like Natasha, Yulia she says she wanted to visit now that Crimea is back in "its rightful place in history".
As we drink iced coffee in the Cafe Pushkin, Sergei adds: "We felt proud of our country. And proud of the people who had made a choice in Russia's interests."
We talk about their plans to go hiking in the mountains and visit Yalta's zoo. How does Crimea compare to other places they have been, I ask.
"Well the scenery is beautiful and it's not too long a flight for the kids," says Yulia. "But the service in hotels isn't quite up to scratch. It would be nice if people smiled more."
As we talk, I gradually sense this young couple may be here not entirely through their own choice.
Word on the beach is that there is a new type of Russian tourist in Crimea. Since the crisis erupted in Ukraine, up to four million Russians who work for the state have been effectively banned from leaving the country - it's rumoured that the government views holidays abroad as a security risk in their case. Since Sergei is an Interior Ministry official, I ask if he can still go holiday wherever he likes.
"If you are talking about money then yes," he says. "But… we have certain restrictions connected to my job. So you see if we have to come here, we're very happy with that too." When I ask if he is forbidden to travel he says nothing and finally says that it's "not recommended".
But would you be punished for a holiday abroad, I persist? Another long pause. "I haven't tried it," he laughs.
It's an awkward conversation, full of echoes of the Cold War era. Russia now feels like a country closing in on itself - a land surrounded by enemies.
More from the Magazine
"For anyone born in the Soviet Union, Crimea is holiday-land. Crimea is the southern promise of freedom, of sensuality, an ideal time and place, outside 'real life', to enjoy sun, sea, mountains, sports, exotic food, rambling, gambling, whatever takes your fancy. The Soviet fashioning of Crimea as a mass image of desire was completely successful, and still remains powerful," writes Ruth Maclennan.
There are plans to turn the nearby port of Sevastopol back into a "closed" city, as it was in Soviet times. The headquarters of the Black Sea fleet and Russia's only warm water naval base might become a place foreigners, and even Russians living even in other parts of the country, could no longer visit.
Vladimir Kravchuk, a Ukrainian artist, complains there's a shrinking market for his work because of sanctions.
"Of course, it's a shame we have lost the cruise liners," he says. "People used to go out in the evening to look at the huge ships. They were beautiful. And we no longer have all those elderly tourists speaking different languages - it was part of the charm of this place. Now that's all gone."
Most of his artist friends moved back to Kiev after the events of last spring.
"The atmosphere is completely different, and it doesn't fill me with joy," he says. "I feel fenced in. You worry about saying things, in case someone overhears you. There's a sense of fear."
Crimea's acting prime minister, Sergei Aksyonov, acknowledges that the 2014 tourist season is "unique", coming in the wake of the Russian annexation.
"This year might not be that great but next year we'll have at least five million visitors - I have no doubts about that," he says.
While tourist numbers are down, visitors of another kind have been arriving in droves - refugees fleeing the violence in eastern Ukraine.
At one refugee camp for 400 people on the outskirts of Simferopol, a woman from the Luhansk region takes me to see the crowded dormitory where she sleeps with her 11-year-old son.
"I never thought that my son would kiss the silver cross around his neck as he went to bed and ask me, 'Mum, are we going to make it through the night?'" she says.
"I stayed at home as long as I could. Everything I have is there - earned through my own sweat and blood. Here I am just a tramp. Nobody gives a damn about us."
There were waves of patriotic euphoria when this territory was annexed in spring. President Putin's approval rating soared to a record high of 86%.
But Crimea is likely to be a significant drain on Russia's resources. It always received more from the Ukrainian budget than it contributed, even when the tourist industry was flourishing, and before sanctions were imposed.
In addition, Moscow has pledged to spend the equivalent of $18bn on development projects over the next six years, including a new bridge across the Kerch Straits to mainland Russia.
So while the country has reclaimed this lost paradise, years from now it may still be counting the cost.
You can listen to Lucy Ash's report for Crossing Continents on the BBC iPlayer.
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