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.
“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.
“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.”