Odessa: How is the tourism sector dealing with the war?

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Before the war started, dozens of tourists used to visit Odessa for both relaxation and sightseeing. Guests would enjoy the beach, explore the historic center, or travel to nearby Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi to see the largest fortress in Ukraine. But those days are over: the atmosphere in the city has changed remarkably. I used to work as a tour guide and write travel articles. The beginning of the invasion, when everything changed in my hometown Odessa, is etched in my memory.

Confusion and disorientation

There was complete confusion and disorientation in the city. Queues formed at supermarkets as people stocked up, fearful of possible food shortages. Similarly, dozens of locals queued to withdraw cash, desperate to offset a possible collapse of the banking system. I too was desperate, unable to clearly understand how my future and my job would be affected.

The streets were almost empty, only the supermarkets and pharmacies remained open. Everything else – cafes, restaurants, theaters, entertainment venues – was closed. People only went out to buy food or walk their dogs. March was stressful, but as April approached, the situation slowly began to change, with cafes, beauty salons and shops reopening. People started going out again; the locals flocked to the parks, the children to the playgrounds.

The current situation in Odessa

Today, a semblance of normal life has returned: restaurants on the main streets have reopened their terraces, you can once again listen to street musicians, attend an opera or ballet performance, or take a bus tour of the city. But the war continues. That is why there are still barricades near the administrative buildings and Primorskyi Boulevard, one of the most iconic and popular tourist spots in the city, remains closed.

Most cafes and restaurants close at 22:00 at the latest; a curfew begins at 11 p.m. after which you are not allowed to be on the streets. Before the war, summer nights in Odessa were parties, open-air movies on the beach, and concerts. Strolling through the city center on those afternoons was lovely. Now there is no nightlife at all, just eerie silence.

How has the war affected tourism?

The high season for tourism in Odessa has always been the summer period from May to September. In 2021, more than 3 million people visited Odessa, almost as many as in pre-COVID times. Initially, this year was expected to be a good year for tourism, with the relaxation of coronavirus restrictions; things were looking up for the industry. But then Russia invaded my country.

Today, most seaside hotels, such as Hotel Nemo, which was very popular in pre-war times, are facing low occupancy rates. Hotels in the city center, the historic part of Odessa, are doing a little better, with foreign journalists and some Ukrainian travelers staying there. “The occupancy of our hotel fell to 15-20%, and it is mostly journalists who make reservations at the Alexandrovskiy hotel. Hotel M1, located next to the beach, is mainly occupied by travelers from Kyiv,” says Tatyana Prodan, head of sales for the Maestro Hotel Management group, which manages the establishments.

No more swimming in the Black Sea

Tourism in Odessa has also suffered because the mines mean swimming in the sea is strictly prohibited. Before the war, in summer, the beaches were filled with visitors. Now it is very different.

Some daring people still go to the beach despite the ban and even go swimming. But there have been tragic cases of people killed by naval mines. Some hotels now offer daily pool passes as an alternative.

Culture and leisure in times of war Odessa

Museums remain closed and some have already moved their collections to a safe place, such as the Museum of Fine Arts or the Museum of Western and Oriental Art. “Even before the invasion started, the museums had a plan on how to act in such a situation. But the outbreak of the war was a shock,” explains Stanislav Kinka, Senior Research Scientist at the Odessa Regional History Museum. His top priority was to make sure the most valuable exhibits were packaged according to previously compiled lists and evacuated as quickly as possible. The museum is now closed to visitors.

Night clubs cannot organize parties. The Philharmonic Theater, however, remains open. And open-air charity concerts are held in the garden park of the city of Odessa.

Sandbags surround the Odessa Opera and Ballet Theatre, which has limited attendance to 30% capacity for security reasons. If an air-raid siren sounds, performances will stop and visitors will have the option to leave the building or proceed to the shelter below the theater. If the air raid alert lasts less than an hour, the show resumes; otherwise, it stops and visitors can use the same ticket to attend a later performance.

new reality

Usually in the summer he would be guiding groups of foreign travelers through Odessa. I would do up to three excursions for Ukrainian tourists per day on weekends. With the start of the war, I lost this job and, to be honest, I can’t imagine when I will be able to go back to my old routine of giving tours, especially to foreign travelers. I am sure that visitors from abroad will want to visit Ukraine very much and many people will come, but this can only happen once the war is over and it is completely safe to vacation here.

Until then, we will continue to live with two realities: as long as restaurants and the Opera House remain open, deadly missile attacks remain a constant threat. We have no idea what tomorrow may bring, as the situation on the front lines changes every day.

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