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How Ukrainian tourism specialists survive

Natalia Vlasenko
May 16, 2022

After Russia's invasion of Ukraine on February 24, tourism activities ended abruptly and remain suspended indefinitely. Here are five stories from people working in tourism — with their hopes, fears and wishes.

A man standing next to a woman in a theater
Work has dried up in Ukraine for tour guides like Natalia Vlasenko (right) Image: Natalia Vlasenko

Natalia Vlasenko loved showing tourists her city of Odesa and its surroundings. Since the war broke out in Ukraine, however, she has spent her time helping refugees and translating for foreign media traveling to Odesa.

The lives of Natalia's colleagues in the Ukrainian tourism industry have also changed radically since Russia invaded in February. She gathered their personal experiences and shared with us her and their stories. They have been edited by DW for brevity and clarity.

A French tourist group in the catacombs of Odesa
Before the war, Natalia Vlasenko ran sightseeing tours of Odesa Image: Natalia Vlasenko

'Not the time for travel articles'

Natalia Vlasenko, tour guide in Odesa:

"I had so many expectations and plans for 2022 after pandemic-related restrictions in tourism were being gradually lifted and relaxed. I used to work a lot with groups from the UK, US, Germany, France, Poland, Belgium and the Netherlands. I have only warm memories from that time: I was doing work I love, showing my city to travelers, acquainting them with Odesa's history, culture and cuisine. 

But on February 24 the war started, and all my plans collapsed. I don't have any tour guiding work now. I used to work as a travel journalist for an Odesa cultural website, I lost this work too. Now is just not the time for travel articles.

I'm having to look for new work opportunities, as I need to earn a living. At the moment I have found part-time employment as a translator and assistant to the foreign press: many journalists from different countries come to Odesa to cover the news. My knowledge of three foreign languages — English, French, and Polish — helps me.

Travel guide Natalia Vlasenko and a soldier in front of a destroyed airport in Mykolaiv
Along with a soldier as guide, Vlasenko (left) and Romanian journalists filmed a destroyed airport in MykolaivImage: Natalia Vlasenko

Also, I volunteer for a news project about the war called We Are Ukraine, and every evening I work as a text editor.

Some colleagues of mine decided to stay in Ukraine, while others have temporarily moved to other countries. I spoke to some of them, translated their stories and want to share their experiences to give an impression how the war changed everything in our country — including the tourism sector."

Tourist sector has important role in times of war

Ivan Liptuga, president of National Tourism Organization of Ukraine:

"Just a couple of weeks before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, when the international media was already openly discussing the very real risk of an all-out war, the vast majority of people did not believe in the likelihood of such a scenario. During that time we received many questions from foreign media outlets, and together with the World Tourism Network decided to hold a Zoom meeting, which was attended by tour operators, and hoteliers, to reassure our international partners that everything was calm and under control in Ukraine.

Three people smiling into the camera at the 26th Ukraine International Travel and Tourism Exhibition
Ivan Liptuga (right) at the 26th Ukraine International Travel and Tourism Exhibition in KyivImage: Ivan Liptuga

Then, 12 days later, everything changed: the war began. Our organization initiated the Scream for Ukraine campaign to draw the attention to the terrible tragedy that has begun to unfold.

From the start of the crisis, our colleagues, as well as tour operators, hoteliers and restaurateurs switched their activities from tourism to supporting the military. The hospitality industry is using its well-established network to provide catering and assistance for the self-defense units. Others helped refugees escape from dangerous regions and leave the country to find safety abroad. Hoteliers in the southern and western regions organized the transit and housing of refugees.

This experience showed how important the role of the tourism sector is, not only in peacetime and for marketing the country as a tourist attraction, but also in crisis situations." 

An Orthodox church in Kyiv
Kyiv has many beautiful sights, but for now tourism is not an optionImage: Maria Yukhnovets

Tourists expected to return when it's 'completely safe'

Julia Kulik, founder and CEO of JC Travel tour operator:

"It is clear the war killed the entire tourism business. At the end of 2021, there were decent bookings for 2022, we were counting on a good year — we were glad that recovery had finally begun after COVID-19.

But by early 2022, as tensions grew, we received more and more cancellations. Then the war began, and the tourist industry died. I had to go to the Netherlands with my daughter. For me and my husband, her life, health, and future are a priority. I found a job, also in tourism.

Julia Kulik with her daughter in the Netherlands
Julia Kulik is now living with her daughter in the NetherlandsImage: (c) Julia Kulik

Tourism in Ukraine will definitely recover quite quickly after the war is over and troops have been withdrawn. Tourists will return as soon as it is completely safe. New locations will be added, as there is surely going to be interest in such cities as Bucha, Irpin, Borodyanka, and Mariupol. The only thing is that it won't be very soon. Ideally in a year would be the best case, although I am being very optimistic."

War upends plans for future 

Anna Nikolaieva, professional tour guide:

"Lviv was the most popular city in Ukraine with tourists. 1,5 million guests visited Lviv in 2021. Tour guides were preparing for the new spring and summer season of 2022.

I was working on a new website and new routes around Lviv during the low season. War demolished all my plans and I made the decision to leave Ukraine. I am in Warsaw now.

Anna Nikolajeva's virtual Ukraine experience, a shot of many people sharing a Zoom screen
Anna Nikolajeva has created a virtual Ukraine experienceImage: Anna Nikolaieva

When COVID-19 started I began advertising an online experience called Cultural Journey Around Ukraine on Airbnb. I am now running this virtual tour on Zoom. And since the war started, I've spoken with Google, Intel, LinkedIn, Pfizer, Airbnb, Pinterest, KPMG Canada, Amazon Studios, Salesforce and others around the world about Ukraine. People understood that they had little or no knowledge about Ukraine and I can help them know more. I hope that the war will finish soon and I can return to Lviv."

Ukraine under attack

Maria Yukhnovets, travel expert, head of business travel for Sputnik Kyiv DMC:

"International tourism has always been very sensitive to all kinds of world events — whether it's a pandemic or a political crisis in any destination. As of January 2022, with increasing media overage about a possible Russian invasion, many governments decided to issue travel warnings for ​Ukraine. ​As much as we understood and respected those decisions, we also recognized that this was detrimental to the 2022 tourist season.

The country's economy and almost all its industries have been shut down. There is no tourism — domestic, inbound, outbound — the sky is closed, Ukraine is under attack.

A woman with a lot of humanitarian aid in Kyiv
Maria Yukhnovets now helps collect and distribute aid to needy people in Kyiv and the wider regionImage: Maria Yukhnovets

We do realize that international tourism will be one of the last sectors to restart after the war in Ukraine ends.​ ​Rebuilding infrastructure, resuming flights and building confidence will be necessary for tourism to recover in Ukraine.​ ​We very much hope that this will happen in 2023.​

At the moment we trying to be useful to our country, so we are all acting as volunteers. Providing food, helping homeless people, aiding refugees, evacuating people, supporting the armed forces of Ukraine — these are daily routines of almost every Ukrainian, including me. I need to support my country, of this I'm sure. 

We do hope that Ukraine will rise like a phoenix from the ashes after these hard times. And yes, we are sure that after this war, millions of people will never ask again: Ukraine? Where is that country?"

Edited by: Susan Bonney-Cox