A Russian Navy De-Gaussing Ship passes in Sevastopol harbour on March 3, 2014. The Russian Black Sea Fleet commander Aleksandr Vitko has issued an ultimatum to the Ukrainian military personnel in Crimea, the Interfax-Ukraine news agency reported. Ukraine accused Russia on Monday of pouring more troops into Crimea as world leaders grappled with Europe's worst standoff since the Cold War and the Moscow market plunged on fears of an all-out conflic  AFP PHOTO/Filippo MONTEFORTE        (Photo credit should read FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images)
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Crimea Crisis Wrecks Tourist Hot Spot

Once the holiday destinations of choice for Russians and Ukrainians, Crimea's Black Sea resorts now sit empty

When voters in Crimea chose to become part of Russia in a widely debated referendum earlier this month, residents of cities from Moscow to Vladivostok took to the streets to celebrate the peninsula’s return to the motherland.

With its Black Sea coastlines and lush, rolling hills, Crimea has long been a favorite holiday destination for Russians and Ukranians, who make up about 95 percent of the 6 million annual visitors to the peninsula. The high season for tourism in the area begins in about a month.

But this year, scared off by images of armed men and continuing unrest in the region, Russians and Ukranians are heading elsewhere for their vacations, with likely catastrophic consequences for the local economy.

This picture taken on March 19, 2014 shows people relaxing on the beach in Yalta, Crimea. The new authorities of the Peninsula announced the nationalization of Ukrainian resorts and hotels in Crimea. Crimean authorities have released the head of the Ukrainian navy whom they had seized during a raid on a base in the rebel peninsula, Ukraine's acting president said. AFP PHOTO / Vasily Maximov        (Photo credit should read VASILY MAXIMOV/AFP/Getty Images)
A nearly empty beach this month in Yalta, Crimea.
(AFP/Getty Images/Vasily Maximov)

“People watch the news, and they will only go there if they are sure their vacations will pass calmly,” says Sergei Romashkin, head of the Moscow-based Delfin travel agency. “Just three people bought package holidays from us to Crimea in March. This time last year, the figure was 300.”

Tourism is the backbone of Crimea’s economy. Travelers brought local businesses around $60 million last year, according to Crimea’s Ministry of Resorts and Tourism, although the Russian media estimates the figure could be nearly five times that.

“Everyone will suffer,” said Alexander Novikovsky, head of the Ukrainian travel business association, Altu. “And not just those who offer accommodation to tourists. Transport companies, restaurants, doctors and insurance companies will also lose money.”

The vast majority of Russians usually visit Crimea by train or by car. But this year, stories of Russian passport-holders being robbed by Ukrainian nationalists on trains and uncertainties over visa requirements have put off many people.

“I’ll go back to Crimea when everything has settled down,” Muscovite lawyer Tatiana Murzina says. “But this year, it’s probably easier to go somewhere else.”

There are, of course, Russians who are determined to ignore all the downsides and make the trip to the Black Sea.

A woman pushes a pram along the embankment in the Black Sea resort town of Alushta March 11, 2014. Ukraine's Crimean peninsular evokes in many Russians and citizens of the former Soviet Union memories of summer holidays in the resorts and sanatoriums along its subtropical Black Sea coast. Crimea is also the place from where Christianity spread throughout what was then called Kievan Rus', a federation of Slavic tribes that later became Russia.  REUTERS/Thomas Peter (UKRAINE - Tags: POLITICS SOCIETY TRAVEL TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) - RTR3GNN3
A woman pushes a pram along a desolate embankment in the Black Sea resort town of Alushta.
(Reuters/Thomas Peter)

“I’m from Russia. I’ve been taking my holidays in Sevastopol [Crimea's capital] for the past 10 years. And I’m going this year, as well,” wrote one would-be tourist on an Internet forum.

Russia is looking for ways to minimize the damage to Crimea’s economy. Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky has spoken of the need to “redirect” the flow of Russian tourists from popular resorts in Turkey and Egypt to Crimea to help support the latest addition to Russian territory. In practical terms, this likely means that state companies will send their workers on free or heavily subsidized vacations to the peninsula, reviving a Soviet-era tradition.

Ukranians, for their part, are also staying away from Crimea.

“Old bookings are being canceled, and no one is making new ones,” says Yulia Oleinik, spokesperson for Ukraine’s association of travel agents.

“[Crimea] is finished now. This is now occupied territory.”

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Activists of the Right Sector movement and their supporters gather outside the parliament building to demand the immediate resignation of Internal Affairs Minister Arsen Avakov, in Kiev March 27, 2014. A prominent Ukrainian far-right activist, part of a hard-line nationalist movement that played a leading role in the overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovich, was shot dead by police overnight, authorities said on March 25. The Interior Ministry said Oleksander Muzychko, also known as Sashko Bily, was killed by officers of the 'Sokol' special unit as he tried to escape from a cafe in the western Ukrainian region of Rivne. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko (UKRAINE - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) - RTR3IWHV
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