Domestic travel offers a lifeline to Ukraine's war-battered tourism industry

The country's tourism chief outlines preparations to rebuild the sector amid hopes of a post-war revival

A family on the shores of the Dnipro river that runs through the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv on July 2, 2022. AFP
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Ukraine is recording a gradual recovery in domestic travel, which is aiding its war-battered tourism industry, as the nearly two-year conflict with Russia keeps international visitors away.

Even as the war continues, citizens have started coming back to Ukrainian cities, bringing back a revival in domestic travel

Ukraine is intensifying efforts to promote domestic tourism and drawing up plans to rebuild the sector in preparation for a postwar revival, Mariana Oleskiv, chairperson of the State Agency for Tourism Development of Ukraine, told The National on the sidelines of the World Travel and Tourism Council's global summit in Rwanda.

The agency began to promote to Ukrainians the country's western region and other lesser-known travel spots that pose low-risk against Russian attacks as a way of finding relief from the war, supporting their economy and encouraging local businesses.

“The summer of 2022 was very difficult for the tourism industry because we were all in this mode of 'there is a war, it's not a proper time to have rest, we all need to make some effort to win the war' but 2023 became a year where we started … talking to people that they need to rest, go to places to recover with their families and kids far from the air raids,” she said.

“This summer was actually very successful for Ukraine's domestic tourism industry. Of course, all tourism shifted to the western part of Ukraine that is bordering with the EU and is considered to be safe.”

The influx of domestic travellers to the western region helped to uplift “struggling” tourist destinations such as the Carpathian Mountains, ski resorts and national parks, amid a campaign encouraging Ukrainians to discover the lesser-known attractions in smaller towns.

It also allowed “local communities to keep working” and “keep the economy running,” she said.

This summer was actually very successful for Ukraine's domestic tourism industry
Mariana Oleskiv, chairperson at the State Agency for Tourism Development of Ukraine

The war with Russia that began in February 2022 has decimated Ukraine's tourism sector with the fighting deterring foreign travellers.

In 2019, Ukraine received about 13.7 million international tourists.

As tourism destinations, Russia and Ukraine account for 4 per cent of international tourist arrivals in Europe but only 1 per cent of Europe’s international tourism receipts, according to the UN World Tourism Organisation.

Tourism tax revenue

The majority of Ukrainians have continued to travel locally during the war, with only 21 per cent of citizens opting to remain to avoid dangerous situations, according to a survey by the State Agency for Tourism Development of Ukraine and Unicef U-Report Ukraine.

Since the outbreak of the war, 45 per cent of Ukrainians have travelled around the country for tourism, according to a poll of 5,000 people.

Tax revenue from the tourism industry in the first nine months of 2023 rose by 13 per cent from the same period in 2022, according to the tourism agency.

However, the amount was 18 per cent below revenue earned in the January to September period in 2021, before the war, the data showed.

“From a tourism tax point of view, we're trying to reach the numbers of 2021,” Ms Oleskiv said.

Preparations to rebuild

Ukraine is preparing for the return of foreign visitors after the war to help the country rebuild its ravaged economy faster.

Money from Ukrainian investors is trickling into some tourism attractions in the country “as people believe in the industry and they believe in the return of international tourists”, Ms Oleskiv said.

“Our focus now during the war is to be ready to restart tourism and to be ready to host international tourists as soon as it will be safe and possible to travel to Ukraine again.”

Under consideration are medical tourism options and the development of resorts.

“Now we are more in the planning mode,” she said. However, the priority is for rebuilding critical infrastructure, transportation, particularly railway lines connecting Ukraine to Europe, and energy complexes.

Ukrainian government agencies are also hoping foreign investors consider projects – from airport development to hotel construction – “because we are sure that it will be a big market in the future”, Ms Oleskiv said.

Investment in hard infrastructure, tourism products, destination marketing and human capital are the main areas of focus.

However, bringing back Ukrainians who have left the country or moved to more stable industries to return to work in tourism is a challenge, she said.

Gulf travellers

Tourists and investors from the Middle East are a crucial part of Ukraine's tourism revival plans.

“This is a very important region to us and we had big plans in 2022 with Qatar to build a hospitality university in Ukraine and for them to invest in a couple of hotels,” Ms Oleskiv said.

“Those plans are on hold now for a little bit, but we're sure that this [Gulf] market in terms of tourism and investment is very important for us.

“We have everything in Ukraine that a Gulf tourist needs,” she said, pointing to green landscapes, cooler weather, “attractive” prices and easier visa schemes.

Addressing lessons that tourism-dependent countries gripped by war can apply, Ms Oleskiv said that “keeping domestic tourism at the core” and diversifying offerings will help the industry to survive.

Updated: November 07, 2023, 7:54 AM