The fifth tourist season since the annexation of the peninsula has started in the Crimea. The Crimeans hope that thanks to the opening of the Crimean Bridge, which connected the occupied territories with the mainland Russia, it will not be as disastrous as the previous four. This summer should show whether the Russian government is able to fulfill the promise to return the Crimea the status of a popular resort. To be honest, the situation with tourism during the Russian occupation is disastrous. According to official information, 5.39 million tourists visited Crimea last year, which is 3.2% lower than in 2016. By the way, at least 6 million tourists had visited the peninsula every year before the annexation.
"Tourism plays an important role in the social and economic life of the Crimea, for the seaside towns and villages this sector is a budget-forming one. We hope that this tourist season will be more successful than in previous years", - the so-called "head" of the Crimea Sergey Aksyonov expressed hope for a change for the better.
In his words you can hear notes of optimism: according to the occupation authorities, the flow of tourists to the peninsula in January-April this year, compared with the same period last year, increased by 11% - to 528.5 thousand people. This gives them hope that this year Crimea will be able to return to the level of the Ukrainian resort and host the cherished 6 million tourists. Russian experts are more cautious in assessments and hope that the tourist flow to Crimea in the new holiday season will remain at least at last year's level.
As they say, the summer will show, but it is already possible to draw the first conclusions as to how the opening of the Crimean Bridge influenced the start of the tourist season.
Crimean Bridge as the last hope
"During the five months of 2018, 1,148,400 tourists visited the Crimea, which is almost 28% higher than in the same period last year. Infrastructure masterpieces of the Crimea are already benefitting the economy of the peninsula. For the first half of May, 17% of the total flow of tourists came to us via the Crimean Bridge, which is impressive", - Sergey Aksyonov said.
Indeed, the opening of the Crimean Bridge, which connected the mainland of the Russian Federation with the annexed peninsula, boosted the development of the tourist industry there. After seeing on news as Vladimir Putin proudly drove through the bridge and opened this "engineering miracle", many Russians also decided to repeat the feat of their idol. It became fashionable to share photos from the Crimean Bridge in social networks. But a lot of Russians are not going farther than the bridge itself.
"It's fashionable to drive along the Crimean Bridge. A lot of friends of mine made several selfies there and returned. Probably soon, trips to the bridge and back with a spectacular photo shoot will be offered. Of course, all TV channels, magazines and social networks spread the information that they are proud for building a bridge in which no one believed, it is a powerful tool. The Crimean Bridge is called the last hope of the Crimeans. They promise that food prices for imported goods will be lowered and that there will be more tourists coming here", - said Svetlana, a resident of Yalta.
"Local authorities" confirm that such a lively start of the tourist season is connected with the opening of the bridge, but people just want to see it, they are not yet ready to spend a vacation on the peninsula.
"The Crimean Bridge is especially popular right now, many people specifically choose traveling by car to be able to ride along our bridge and comment on this event in social networks", - Vladimir Konstantinov, the so-called chairman of the "Crimean State Council", told.
"This is great, but this euphoria will pass sooner or later", - he added.
By the way, according to Konstantinov, it turns out that the local residents of the Crimea, thanks to the bridge, began to discover Sochi and other Russian cities. The Crimeans and, above all, the inhabitants of Kerch, rushed to the cities of the Krasnodar Krai to "re-discover continental Russia".
Another optimist, former Crimean minister of tourism, Alexander Liyev, believes that the opening of the Crimean Bridge will significantly affect the tourist season and says about an increase in the tourist flow to the peninsula by road in 1.5 times.
"It will significantly affect the tourist season in Crimea, due to the large propaganda of the bridge in the Russian media, and one can expect that the tourist flow by road will increase almost 1.5 times. Earlier about 400 thousand people got there by cars, now it can be up to 600 thousand of tourists", - he told OstroV.
But he also admits that the euphoria will fade away soon. The Crimeans will be lucky if it lasts a year.
"But these changes will be short-term. The bridge gives the opportunity to come to the Crimea, but does not make it cheaper, does not make the service better. It is still a "gray zone" for the rest of the world. Most likely, there will be a large flow of Russians who just want to see the bridge", - the former minister said.
Local residents confirmed such fears to OstroV. They have not yet noticed crowds of tourists coming across the bridge. "It seems that all tourists get to the famous Crimean Bridge and turn back, or stay here for only 1-2 days, which does not greatly affect the growth of the tourist sphere of the Crimea. There are a lot of young people who either spend the night in tents or rent cheap housing. Most people expect it to be a place for a cheap holiday, like it had been earlier", - Sergey, employee of the Crimean travel agency, says.
Webcams vividly confirm his words: the south coast is empty. By the way, internet users noticed that the quantity of webcams on the peninsula became much smaller: the Crimean "authorities" do not want to show empty beaches and embankments to the whole world.
Tourists from Ukraine and the occupied Donbass
So, the bridge did not actually increase the flow of the Russian tourists. There is still hope that Ukrainian citizens, who do not think it is shameful to visit the occupied territory, go there for a vacation. "There are still a lot of Ukrainian tourists in the Crimea, and it's interesting that every year the attitude towards them is getting better and better. People say that they are tired of quarreling and they want to return the former relationship between Russians and Ukrainians. This is a mutually beneficial friendship: Crimeans earn on tourists from Ukraine, and Ukrainians, in turn, spend their vacations in familiar places", - Crimean realtor Natalia says.
She notes that mostly people from the south-eastern regions of Ukraine go to the peninsula (from the Kharkiv, Donetsk, Luhansk, Odessa, Mykolayiv, Kherson, Zaporizhia oblasts).
People from the occupied territory of Donbass are a separate category of tourists in the Crimea. According to local realtors, they enjoy peninsula’s "special attitude".
"Some continue to pity them and sometimes make small discounts on housing, and some, on the contrary, do not trust them. There was an unofficial opinion that refugees from the East of Ukraine (as they are called here) behave themselves in a rude way and cannot even pay for their stay. There were such cases. But, nevertheless, there are a lot of tourists from the "DNR" and "LNR" here”, - Natalia says.
Indeed, the few travel agencies that continued to operate in the occupied territory of Donbass are actively promoting tours to the Crimea.
"It's now much easier to buy tours from any city in Russia, including from Donetsk, than it was about 3 years ago. Many travel agencies have online booking forms and accept all types of payment. Donetsk citizens can choose a suitable tour on their own or with manager’s help of the manager only in a few minutes and immediately pay for it", - one of such websites says.
However, such tours are not cheap. For example, it will take 17 hours and at least $30 to get from Donetsk to the South Coast of Crimea.
OstroV’s journalist called one of Donetsk travel agencies with the request to book an inexpensive 7-day tour for a family of three people in the Crimea. We were offered two options: either to travel to the controlled territory of Ukraine (for example, to Mariupol) and take a tourist bus from there, or get there through Russia (Rostov-on-Don), or they can find a good hotel in Crimea, but we would have to get there independently (for example, by private buses from Donetsk through Russia).
"Without taking into account transportation costs, the price of such a tour starts from $615 in a small holiday home with an all-inclusive meal. Everything depends on where exactly in Crimea you want to stay. Alushta is a good option, there is a small private hotel (it provides three meals a day), the beach is in walking distance from it. There is a small swimming pool as well. A weekly stay in a room with private bathroom and toilet will cost $860. We have many options, because we cooperate with many Crimean travel agencies", - employee of the Donetsk agency told.
It is worthy of note that in the same travel agency, you can buy a trip to Turkey for two persons in an all-inclusive hotel from $400 for a week with airplane departures from Kharkiv, Dnipro or Odessa.
According to local realtors, the number of tourists from the controlled part of Ukraine does not decrease. This is also confirmed by the fact that it is quite difficult to book a bus ticket from Kyiv or Zaporizhia to the Crimea in the summer. If it was earlier possible to find places in the bus "for tomorrow" among the numerous companies that offer such transportation, now they ask to book seats, at least, in a week.
"All that we can offer you is two places in night bus in 5 days. We have already launched extra runs, but so far, the demand is very high", - one of the Kyiv transport companies replied to OstroV.
And this is despite the fact that the price of tickets from Kyiv to the occupied Crimea is quite high: a one way trip by bus will cost $38, while to Odessa, for example, you can get for $11.5, and to Warsaw – for $19. But people pay – and go!
The so-called head of the Crimea Sergey Aksyonov claims that almost a quarter of all tourists on the peninsula are Ukrainians.
"Despite the sanctions and obstacles from the Kyiv authorities, almost a quarter of tourists (23%) come from Ukraine", — he recently wrote on Facebook.
Of course, not all Ukrainians go to the peninsula with tourist purposes, many go to the Crimea to visit friends or relatives, someone has housing or business there. But we must admit that the occupied Crimea still remains one of the popular destinations for Ukrainians. Many go to the peninsula for ideological reasons, such as "Crimea is ours!"
"Just yesterday, I was engaged in the accommodation of a tourist group from the Zaporizhia oblast. 12 people came to one of the pensionates in Yalta. Friendly and benevolent people, I understood from their conversations that they do not strongly support the Ukrainian authorities and are nostalgic for the rest in Crimea. During all the tour (10 days), each person put out about $900, and this is the only thing that angered them. They said that it was cheaper to go even to Europe, without mentioning Turkey or Egypt, but it was the nostalgic aspect that got the upper hand and so they chose the Crimea. I want to say that often I hear this not only from Ukrainians, but also from Russians who go to the peninsula just for nostalgia. By the way, this and past year, tourists from Ukraine (including from the "DNR" and "LNR") account for about 20% of all visitors with whom I deal", - employee of one of the travel agencies of Sevastopol Sergey told.
Ukrainian travel agencies, in turn, do not hesitate to offer tours to the occupied Crimea, hypocritically covering the not quite legal business with a ritual phrase that it is the territory of Ukraine.
"Prices in Crimea do not hold water"
Crimean prices are another story, for which tourists should be ready. OstroV has already analyzed and compared prices in the occupied Crimea, Kyiv and Donetsk.
And since then, the trend has not changed: the prices on the peninsula are on the average twice as high as the Ukrainian ones. Moreover, tourists from Moscow and other large cities of Russia note that fruits and vegetables in the Crimea are much more expensive than in their cities.
"Prices in Crimea do not hold water. If compared to Moscow prices, this is plus 20-30% minimum. Now in Yalta, 1 kg of strawberries costs about $3.2, while in Moscow it costs $2.4. I am not talking about the fact that the roundtrip costed me $353, and a RO accommodation in Sevastopol hotel - $80 per day. Of course, the rest in Turkey in a ritzy hotel would have been cheaper, but I have to fly here, because my parents live in Sevastopol", - tourist from Moscow Alexander told OstroV.
One of the limiting factors of tourist popularity of Crimea is the cost of air travel. Even despite the decision of the Russian government to subsidize airlines flying to the peninsula, the prices leave much to be desired. For example, an air ticket from Moscow to Simferopol costs on average the same as in Greece (Athens) - about $150 one way. The price of air travel to the Crimea from other Russian cities is even higher.
In May 2018, a new airport terminal, which was supposed to significantly increase the passenger traffic to the Crimea, was opened in Simferopol. However, a month later, Russian airlines decided to reduce their plans for flights by 22.2% or 551 thousand seats. So, if last summer, 2.7 million seats were put up for sale, then it was 2.1 million this year.
It is reported that a number of factors led to this: from the opening of the Crimean Bridge to a sharp — by 1,5-2 times — growth of the airport tariffs in Simferopol. The airport itself explains that they need to return $514 thousand of investment in the new terminal. Thus, the pompous opening of one of the largest and most modern airports turned for the Crimea only by a jump in the prices of air tickets and a reduction in the number of flights.
The road transport along the peninsula also became more expensive. In May 2018, petrol in the Crimea began to rise sharply. The price of fuel increased by 13% in a few days. Local residents note that every weekend, the price increases on the average by $0.01 per liter. According to experts, the opening of the Crimean Bridge will not save the situation.
"Perhaps after the opening of the Kerch Bridge, some amount of fuel will go through it, but in general, logistics to the Crimea is very expensive, and even transportation through the bridge will not reduce gasoline prices on the peninsula", - president of the Russian Independent Fuel Union Pavel Bazhenov stated.
Prices for housing in the Crimea continue to grow from year to year. And this tourist season is not an exception. With the bridge opening, prices for daily rent of housing increased on the average by 10-20%.
"Local residents felt that it is possible to earn good money from the opening of the bridge. It is logical that this summer, we expect an increase in the number of tourists, so all boldly raised the prices. So, a studio apartment in Sevastopol costs from $32 per day, in Yalta - from $48, hotels are more expensive - from $56-64 per day. The cheapest way is to rent a room in a house somewhere away from the city, in a small village, and this option is in requisition. In July, for example, a room in the village of Simeiz will cost $24 per day, but you need to understand that the amenities will be in the yard and the room's furniture is in the style of the Soviet Union. This year, the same as in the previous seasons, budget housing is in a great demand", - Crimean realtor Natalia told.
Recently, some Crimean hotels and pensionates, following the example of Turkey and Egypt, offer rest according to the "all inclusive" system, however, they mean simply three meals daily. Such a rest costs from $64 per person per day and is in demand among families with children who do not want to bother with cooking and finding inexpensive cafe.
Prices for food in the Crimea also set records. Since the beginning of the annexation, they have grown several times and continue to keep the level of some of the highest in both Russia and Ukraine. With the beginning of the tourist season, they are additionally raised by 10-15%, what wreaks havoc on purses, especially of the local residents.
"The prices for products are constantly growing, probably everywhere, not only in the Crimea. But it is especially felt here, as there is not enough production on the peninsula, and the remoteness of the region from the mainland of the Russian Federation influences prices not in the best way. Many residents of Moscow and other cities wonder how we live here with such prices, because salaries in Moscow are 2-3 times higher and prices are about the same as in the Crimea. Most visitors do not understand this and think that prices here are the same as in Ukraine. They are strongly surprised and upset when understand that can afford themselves a little for this rest. If you can still search for cheaper products, the budget tourists will not be able to go to cafes and restaurants", - resident of Sevastopol Yekaterina says.
OstroV gives the prices for products in Sevastopol as of the beginning of June 2018.
Cucumbers, 1 kg - $0.8,
Tomatoes, 1 kg - $2.9,
Strawberries, 1 kg - $3.2,
Cherry, 1 kg - $4,
Apples, 1 kg - $1.6,
Bananas, 1 kg - $2,
New potatoes, 1 kg - $1.2,
Eggs, ten - $1.6,
Milk, 1l - $1.2,
Curd, 1 kg - $2.4,
Sugar, 1 kg - $1.1.
However, the so-called local authorities are confident in price stabilization in the Crimea after the final opening of the bridge.
"We expect that the opening of freight traffic along the Crimean Bridge, and then of the branch railway line, will increase the delivery of products to the peninsula and level of competition. I am confident that the prices will be stabilized", - head of the Crimea Sergey Aksyonov believes.
In general, we can say that the tourism industry in the annexed Crimea, although slowly, but is rising. To a large extent, this is a merit not of the occupation authorities, but of Russian propaganda. When the media is constantly exaggerating information about the "unfriendly" West and "Gayrope", Russians choose the "crimeaisours" resorts on the subconscious level, turning a deaf ear that they pay European prices for the recall of the Soviet Union.
Vladyslav Bulatchyk, OstroV