TOURISM IN WARTIME

Travel professionals in Odessa, Ukraine, are marshaling tourism resources to aid their country.

The Odessa Opera and Ballet Theatre surrounded by sandbags, one of the many signs of a country at war.

The Odessa Opera and Ballet Theatre surrounded by sandbags, one of the many signs of a country at war.

After crossing the border from Palanca, Moldova, into Ukraine, it doesn’t take long to realize that you’ve entered a country at war. The road to Odessa is lined with tank traps, bunkers, gun emplacements, thousands of well-armed troops; the adjacent fields are honeycombs of trenches. There are no missiles in the air, no gunfire punctuating the silence, but this southern region of Ukraine is prepared, should fighting reach here.

At the wheel of the car is Dumitru Boaghe, owner of Tours of Moldova, who is driving me from Chisinau, the capital of Moldova, to Odessa to meet Ivan Liptuga, president of the National Tourism Organization of Ukraine. 

I’m hoping to learn about how Liptuga and his fellow tourism professionals may be using their expertise, experience and resources to help their country in its crisis as well as to ask them about their hopes for the tourism sector’s future recovery. 

Photographer/writer Mark Edward Harris, left, with Ivan Liptuga, president of the National Tourism Organization of Ukraine, and the sculpture “Anchor-heart,” the official symbol of Odessa. (Photo by Dumitru Boaghe)

Photographer/writer Mark Edward Harris, left, with Ivan Liptuga, president of the National Tourism Organization of Ukraine, and the sculpture “Anchor-heart,” the official symbol of Odessa. (Photo by Dumitru Boaghe)

And I’m hoping to learn more about what attractions brought visitors to the region before the war began.

After weaving our way through numerous checkpoints and a maze of barriers designed to slow down an advancing Russian army, we arrived at our meeting place, Monica Pinza Pasta Bar, one of the few restaurants still open in Odessa. 

It felt surreal to be sitting at a world-class eatery in a war zone. At the table next to ours, soldiers who had fought in the Donbas region were having a final meal in relative peace before heading back into the line of fire.

Liptuga is the former director of the Tourism and Resorts Department of Ukraine, a government position, where his work focused on building a coherent network out of Ukraine’s 24 regions for the purposes of coordinated destination marketing, analytics, investment and quality training and management.

His contacts list is robust.

Liptuga outlines the current reality on the ground. “Before the war, the majority of Ukrainian tour operators and travel agencies sold outbound travel — Turkey in summer, Egypt in winter and Western Europe year-round. That business was double the inbound business. The situation now is that our inbound tourists are only refugees, journalists, people from international relief organizations and foreign soldiers fighting in solidarity with us.”

Liptuga said he and his fellow tourism professionals have been able to repurpose the resources of the tourism and travel industry to aid their country in a time of war.

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 The results of a Russian missile strike on a Black Sea resort.

 The results of a Russian missile strike on a Black Sea resort.

Tourism and hospitality businesses have turned their assets to humanitarian efforts, Liptuga said. “These efforts can be divided into three key areas. The first is to assist in the reception, accommodation and feeding of refugees from hot spots in Ukraine and often helping relocate them to the more peaceful regions in Ukraine or abroad. Second, we deliver humanitarian cargo donated from different countries, including food, medicine, hygiene products, clothing and so on.

“In addition,” he continued, “everyone is working the information front, using traditional marketing channels to inform our tourism partners and the world about what is happening in Ukraine; that is, supporting the accurate dissemination of information about the war. We are also campaigning to ask people to stop relations with Russian companies.”

The humanitarian efforts have had their challenges. Tour buses designated to transport refugees are sitting idle for lack of fuel. (Ukraine’s domestic oil infrastructure was destroyed and its ports blockaded. Fuel being trucked in from other countries doesn’t meet demand.)

Before the war, tourism in Ukraine was very diversified. “We can do any type of tourism: cultural, gastronomy, nature, skiing in the Carpathian region, wine tourism, health and wellness,” Liptuga said. But despite its diversity, Ukrainian tourism struggled to compete with the more sophisticated marketing approaches and tourism infrastructure in regional markets such as Turkey, he added.

“In recent years, we focused on increasing quality standards and products and positioning Ukraine as a new and affordable destination in Eastern Europe,” he continued. “But it required a balance: If you do a lot of marketing but can’t deliver the service and quality, you’ll get one-time visitors and negative press, which can spread quickly in the information age.”

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Left, the Humanitarian Quarter Odessa Center receives a food delivery. Tourism professionals are active in efforts to deliver food, medicine, hygiene products and clothing. Right, a Ukrainian girl waits with her dog for her mother to receive aid at the Humanitarian Quarter Odessa Center. 

Left, the Humanitarian Quarter Odessa Center receives a food delivery. Tourism professionals are active in efforts to deliver food, medicine, hygiene products and clothing. Right, a Ukrainian girl waits with her dog for her mother to receive aid at the Humanitarian Quarter Odessa Center. 

In his role before the war, Liptuga worked with areas to build their products and prepare their staffs and infrastructure to compete in international markets. There was a strong information network, he noted: There are 122 Ukrainian universities that have tourism and hospitality courses.

And one of those — in fact, Liptuga’s alma mater, Odessa National Economic University — is the primary tourism research center in the region. After lunch we headed there for a meeting with the school’s rector, Anatoly Kovalev.

Kovalev said that once the shooting stops, tourism will play an integral part in the country’s long-term economic recovery.

Echoing Liptuga’s words, Kovalev said that the development of a solid tourism infrastructure must be in place before the implementation of an effective public relations campaign.

Of course, before that can happen, a war has to be won or, at least, some sort of lasting peace achieved. 

And, related to the war, the development of new target markets is a must: Russian visitors made up the majority of tourists until their country’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and hostilities in Donbas began. Their numbers decreased by 95%, and most visitors were from Moldova, Romania or Poland.

In the Odessa region, Kovalev said, Black Sea beaches were, before the war, especially popular with Russian tourists. Historical and cultural sites in Odessa, Izmail, Chornomorsk, Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi, Vilkovo, Kiliya and Shabo all drew attention. 

And, prior to the war, efforts were underway 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. A network of 13 estuaries, it’s home to 262 species of birds.

After the meeting, Liptuga took us on a walking tour, albeit through a gantlet of sandbags and tank traps. We paused at Odessa’s famed opera house as well as a shuttered literature museum.

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A religious icon modified to include a helmet and flack jacket.

A religious icon modified to include a helmet and flack jacket.

The tour also included a refugee center that’s supported by chef Jose Andres’ World Central Kitchen, in coordination with the National Tourism Organization of Ukraine.

Since Liptuga is a father of four and his youngest has autism, he is not obliged to join the military, but nonetheless he goes on patrol with his neighbors several nights a week, on guard against possible infiltrators. 

He said he believes a ground attack on Odessa is not imminent but notes that missiles have landed in the city. In fact, among the areas we traversed were ones that included a Black Sea resort, Grand Pettine, and an apartment complex that had been damaged by missiles.

Of his own experience, Liptuga said, “I woke up suddenly on the 24th of February because our whole house was shaking after a nearby missile strike. It was a shock. We still cannot believe the Russians started this war. 

“In 2014, when Crimea was annexed, there was no shooting. It was a surprise, but then again, Crimea was always an issue.

“Our history is connected to Russia,” he continued, “but at the same time, nobody wants Russia to come here as a state. We had a lot of relations with them — friends, business partners — but we don’t want to be dependent on them or have to answer to Moscow.”

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Odessa National Economic University rector Anatoly Kovalev in his office.

Odessa National Economic University rector Anatoly Kovalev in his office.

From 2014 until the first shot was fired this year, the Ukrainian population was divided over the issues of Donbas and Crimea, he believes. “A lot of people in Ukraine’s south and east were neutral. The fighting was confined to the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, but our other regions and cities were calm and safe.”

But as a result of the Russian attack, Ukrainians have united like never before, he said. “I think the real birth of Ukraine just happened, just in 2022. Putin has achieved the opposite of what he was attempting. The majority of us didn’t expect that our army could fight against a powerful army such as Russia’s, but they have.” 

While it often appears that there is no end in sight, the guns will go silent, as all wars’ guns eventually do. But no one can predict when. 

“I don’t know how this will resolve itself,” Liptuga said. “President [Volodymyr] Zelenskyy has been very brave. Nobody thought that he was a serious person. Putin must have thought the same thing. Everyone underestimated him. All the global PR and marketing President Zelenskyy and his team are using are yielding effective results. It’s a new way of governing, and it’s a new way of war.” 

Liptuga said he had met Zelenskyy when the president was a comic actor. “The way he became president is like a movie scenario. And his series, ‘Servant of the People’ — that started in 2015 and was actually his campaign. 

“We were all laughing back then. The show was a [satire of] political life. When he decided to run for president on Dec. 31, 2018, we were very skeptical. But people wanted change because the old political stage had the same people on it for many years. Zelenskyy was a breath of fresh air, and he got 75% of the votes. Now, in war, everyone sees how he has risen to the occasion.” 

Our tour and interview finished, Liptuga sends me back to neighboring Moldova with a pointed message: “It’s vital for everyone to keep in mind that a victory for Ukraine would not just be a victory for us but a victory for democracy over autocracy.”

Adventure Travel Trade Association CEO Shannon Stowell, who introduced me to Liptuga, shares Kovalev’s faith that, ultimately, tourism will help Ukraine recover. 

“Clearly Ukraine is still in the midst of a horrific and unjustified conflict, which is inflicting a lot of damage on the people and infrastructure of the country,” Stowell said. “But I do believe that many adventure travelers will have a keen interest in visiting Ukraine once the conflict has ended and will do it for a number of reasons, including to help and to see what happened.

“Ukraine’s being on the world stage will increase interest in post-war travel there, and although clearly this tragedy will last for generations, I hope tourism can play a significant part in the country’s recovery.”

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An update on the Ukraine tour operator couple featured in Travel Weekly

The lives of Kyiv-based tour operators Julia Kulyk and Aleksandr Skrypka, and their daughter, Polina, were turned upside-down when Russia invaded Ukraine.

Travel Weekly has chronicled parts of their journey – their plans to leave and then Julia and Polina’s safe arrival in the Netherlands.

Kyiv-based tour operator Julia Kulyk fled Ukraine with her daughter, Polina. Her husband, Aleksandr, was forced to remain in the country. (TW photo by Arnie Weissmann)

Kyiv-based tour operator Julia Kulyk fled Ukraine with her daughter, Polina. Her husband, Aleksandr, was forced to remain in the country. (TW photo by Arnie Weissmann)

Julia has since gotten a job with the U.S.-based OTA Kimkim, vetting inbound tour operators in Southeast Asia for possible inclusion on the company’s platform. When it brought its staff to the U.S. for a meeting last month, Travel Weekly editor in chief Arnie Weissmann met with Julia in Los Angeles to get an update on her situation.

She said that Aleksandr, who is unable to legally leave Ukraine because all men under age 60 must remain in the country, is still in Kiev, working with friends to raise money and deliver food and other resources to elderly citizens in small towns nearby. Polina is enrolled in a school in the Netherlands.

The situation is difficult: At Easter, the family was able to reunite for a weekend in Lviv, but they miss one another terribly, and Julia and Polina are very homesick.

Julia and Polina are getting by, but Julia would like to take on more work on evenings and weekends. “If there is someone in the U.S. travel industry who could use some freelance help with travel marketing, especially social media, I can assist. Please have them reach out to me at my former company’s email address: [email protected],” she told Weissmann.

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