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How is Odesa's tourist sector coping amid war?

Natalia Vlasenko
August 5, 2022

Odesa has always been a popular destination for both Ukrainian and foreign visitors. But as the war in Ukraine continues, the city's tourism industry is suffering.

Sandbags protect the Theater of Opera and Ballet in Odesa, Ukraine
Today, sandbags protect the Theater of Opera and Ballet in downtown OdesaImage: Natalia Vlasenko/Stanislav Kinka

Before the start of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, scores of tourists used to visit the southern port city of Odesa for both relaxation and sightseeing. Guests would enjoy the beach, explore the historic center or travel to nearby Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi to see the biggest fortress in Ukraine.

But those days are over — the atmosphere in the city has changed markedly. I used to work as a tourist guide and write travel articles. The start of the invasion, when everything changed in my hometown Odesa, is etched in my memory.

Two guides in the Odesa Opera and Ballet Theater
Author Natalia Vlasenko with a Belgian colleague in the Odesa Opera and Ballet Theater before the warImage: Natalia Vlasenko

Confusion and disorientation

There was complete confusion and disorientation in the city. Queues formed in the supermarkets as people stockpiled products, afraid of possible food shortages. Similarly, scores of locals lined up to withdraw cash, desperate to offset a possible breakdown in the banking system. I, too, was at my wits' end, unable to grasp clearly how my future and work would be affected. 

The streets were almost empty, only 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 began going out again; locals flocked to the parks, children to the playgrounds.

A crowded beach in Odesa before the war in Ukraine
Before the war, Odesa's beaches were full of people. Today, swimming is too dangerous because of minesImage: Natalia Vlasenko/Stanislav Kinka

From enchanting to eerie  

Today, a semblance of normal life has returned. Restaurants on main streets have reopened their terraces, and you can once more listen to buskers, catch an opera or ballet performance or take a bus tour of the city. But the war continues. That's why there are still barricades near administrative buildings, and Primorskyi Boulevard — one of the city's most emblematic and popular tourist sights — remains closed. 

Most cafes and restaurants shut by 10 p.m. at the latest; a curfew begins at 11 p.m., after which you are not allowed to be in the streets. Before the war, summer nights in Odesa were all about parties, open-air movies on the beach and concerts. Strolling through the city center on such evenings was enchanting. Now there's no nightlife at all — just eerie silence.

Crowded street in the evening, Odesa
Crowded streets in the evening and a vibrant nightlife — Odesa hasn't seen that for monthsImage: Natalia Vlasenko/Stanislav Kinka

'Hotel occupancy fell to 15-20%'

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

Today, most seaside hotels, like Hotel Nemo, which was very popular in prewar times, are struggling with low occupancy rates. Hotels in the city center, the historic part of Odesa, are faring slightly better, with foreign journalists and a few Ukrainian travelers staying there.

Lanzheron Beach Hotel and Hotel Nemo on the front at Odesa
Lanzheron Beach Hotel and Hotel Nemo are on the waterfront, but currently have no international guestsImage: Natalia Vlasenko/Stanislav Kinka

"Our hotel occupancy fell to 15-20%, and it's mostly journalists who make reservations in the Alexandrovskiy Hotel. Hotel M1, located next to the beach, is busy mostly with travelers from Kyiv," said Tatyana Prodan, head of sales at Maestro Hotel Management group, which runs the establishments. 

No more swimming in the Black Sea 

Tourism has also suffered because mines mean it is strictly forbidden to swim in the sea. Before the war, in the summertime, the beaches were packed with visitors. Now it's very different.  

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

Culture and leisure in wartime Odesa

Museums remain closed, and some have already moved their collections to safety, like the Fine Arts Museum, or the Museum of Western and Eastern Art. 

"Even before the start of the invasion, museums had a plan in place on how to act in such a situation. But the outbreak of war still came as a shock," explained Stanislav Kinka, senior scientific fellow at Odesa's Museum of Regional History. Its main priority was to ensure that the most valuable exhibits were packed according to previously compiled lists, and evacuated as quickly as possible. The museum is now closed to visitors.

A group of tourists in Odesa's Opera and Ballet Theater
Before the war, groups of international guests enjoyed guided tours of Odesa's Opera and Ballet TheaterImage: Ekaterina Ergeeva

Nightclubs are not allowed to stage parties. The Philharmonic Theater, however, remains open. And charity open-air concerts are held in Odesa city garden park.

Sandbags surround the Odesa Opera and Ballet Theater, which has capped attendance at 30% venue capacity for safety reasons. Should an air raid siren sound, performances will be stopped and visitors are given the choice to either leave the building or proceed to the shelter under the theater. If the air raid alert lasts less than an hour, the show resumes, otherwise it's stopped and visitors can use the same ticket to attend a subsequent performance.\

New reality 

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

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

Edited by: Susan Bonney-Cox