Russian tourism to Crimea has declined, but many still ignore the risks
YALTA, Crimea (Reuters) – In years past, Siberian Viktor Motorin could take a plane and arrive in Crimea after just four hours to relax in his apartment for the holiday. Now he must fly first to Moscow and then spend a day and a half on the train.
The war in Ukraine, now 18 months old, is making it difficult for many Russians to reach their favorite summer spots in the Black Sea region of Crimea, which Moscow seized and annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
Safety is an important factor for some, especially after two major Ukrainian attacks since last October on the 19-kilometre Crimean Bridge that connects Russia to the peninsula by road and rail.
But after examining those concerns, Motorin, from the city of Khanty-Mansiysk in western Siberia, said he decided that making his annual trek was still a risk worth taking.
“We thought it was reasonably safe, especially when my colleagues actually came here in June and early July. They said everything was calm here without any problems on the Crimean Bridge. Goods, prices, everything is the same as before.” He said.
Russians have been drawn to the lush landscapes and rocky coastline of Crimea since tsarist times, but now the choice of where to go for a vacation is complicated by several factors related to the war.
Sanctions have cut off flights to the West, and the weakening of the Russian ruble has made flights more expensive to other popular destinations, such as Turkey and Thailand.
Commercial airspace over Crimea has been closed since Russia launched what it calls its “special military operation” in Ukraine in February 2022, meaning visitors must arrive by either car or rail. The arduous journeys are often exacerbated by the long queues on the bridge.
“We came by train: it took two days and four hours, which is a very long time this year because we were afraid to get into the car,” said Olga Morskova, from Rybinsk, north of Moscow. “It’s the fifth year we’ve been here on holiday.” It is about 1,370 kilometers (850 miles) from the Crimean Peninsula.
Alexey Volkov, head of the National Union of Hospitality Industries, said in an interview that the number of tourists in Crimea is expected to drop by 20-30% this year to between 6 and 6.5 million people.
“What is special about this year is the number of difficulties caused by the special military operation and the new challenges facing the hospitality industry and the local population when (emergency) situations recur,” he said.
“This is the most difficult season over the past nine years that we have been part of Russia,” he added, referring to the 2014 annexation of Russia, which most countries consider illegal and which Ukraine has vowed to reverse.
Other Russian resorts on the Black Sea, which are less at risk of attacks, have also seen increased demand. Volkov said hotel occupancy in Sochi was 100 percent, and even the port city of Novorossiysk saw a 6 percent increase in visitors.
He added that the decrease in the number of visitors to Crimea means more for Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea and Dagestan in Russia’s North Caucasus region.
For a Russian couple, choosing Crimea as a holiday destination was fatal. The man and woman were killed, and their 14-year-old daughter injured, when their car was hit by an explosion when they crossed the bridge on July 17, while traveling at night to avoid traffic jams.
The head of the Ukrainian Security Service, Vasyl Malyuk, later claimed responsibility for the attack, and for an earlier attack that caused severe damage to the bridge last October.
Russia’s defense ministry said last week that its forces had destroyed 42 drones launched by Ukraine over Crimea in one day. Its Russian-appointed governor said two more planes were shot down on Monday.
But despite the imminence of war, some of the Russians interviewed by Reuters were careful to play down the risks or rule them out altogether.
“No, there are no fears at all,” Alexander Semashko said from Stavropol in southern Russia. “We went without thinking twice, we weren’t afraid of anything; everything is fine.”
“The purpose of our trip is, of course, to have a good rest and undoubtedly support tour operators, hoteliers and Russian tourism.”
Sergey Lenkov, from Vologda, north of Moscow, said he trusts Russia’s air defense systems.
“There are really no risks. The sky is protected. So there is nothing to worry about,” he said.
(Reporting by Reuters; Writing by Mark Trevelyan and Alexander Marrow; Editing by Gareth Jones and Sharon Singleton)