A new survey conducted by UK tourism website SimplyHolidayDeals.co.uk has confirmed what many have already long suspected – Kyiv is now Europe’s cheapest capital city. The 2014-15 devaluation of the Ukrainian currency, the hryvnia, has brought costs tumbling down and made Ukraine a paradise for anyone coming to the country with dollars or other hard currency. Everything from accommodation to eating out has become available in Kyiv for bargain basement prices, placing the Ukrainian capital firmly ahead of traditionally cheap regional rivals such as Bucharest, Prague and Sofia. With service standards comparable to the best Europe has to offer and attractions to rival any major EU capital, Kyiv is theoretically poised to welcome a tourist boom.
Tapping into Ukraine’s tourism potential
This increased competitiveness on the tourism market is a potentially important silver lining for Ukraine at a time when the Ukrainian economy desperately needs to start attracting outside incomes. The tourism trade is one of the largest industries in the developed world, accounting for sizable slices of GDP in countries like Spain, Greece and France. Ukraine has yet to capitalize on the abundance of tourism treasures it can off, but today’s low prices present an opportunity to sell the country as an attractive alternative destination. Ukraine has a range of exciting tourist destinations and is particularly strong in the ‘city break’ category. As well as Kyiv, Lviv and Odesa stand out as memorable and appealing weekend break destinations. The Carpathian Mountains also have huge potential as an all-year-round eco-tourism option, as does the Dnipro River and its tributaries.
Countering the negative images of war and revolution
At present, the tourist trade in Ukraine is falling significantly short of its potential. Despite the tumbling local currency, 2015 has so far seen the number of foreign visitors plummet to almost half of 2014 totals. This drop is in response to the perceived risks posed by Russia’s hybrid war. In general, the country suffers from negative associations such as revolution and war, preventing it from reaching its tourism potential. Coverage of the conflict in east Ukraine and the Russian invasion of Crimea have created the impression of a nation in flames and under foreign occupation – hardly the kind of associations most tourists are looking for. In reality, Crimea is effectively isolated from the rest of Ukraine, while the fighting in east Ukraine is limited to a region representing less than 5% of the country. Ukraine is no more ‘consumed by war’ than tourist hotspots such as Israel, Turkey and semi-occupied Cyprus. Nevertheless, Ukraine’s low international profile has meant that these negative associations are the only things most people know about the country.
Who is going to get a more positive message out to international audiences? The Ukrainian government presently has few resources to promote Ukraine’s tourist appeal, so any initiatives will need to come from the private sector or the grassroots level. Social media offers the obvious platform to promote Ukraine’s tourist potential, and individuals can all play a part by spreading information on their favourite places in Ukraine. Interactive social media initiatives would be a good option, encouraging those who have visited the country (and residents) to share their tourism experiences.
Low expectations: visitors to Ukraine ‘always impressed’
As well as generating revenues, increased tourism would also be beneficial for Ukraine’s geopolitical position. The country suffers from long-standing obscurity – a condition that diminishes its voice on the international stage while amplifying the arguments of its opponents. Ukraine’s low profile makes it easier for other nations to ignore the country’s legitimate complaints while accepting disinformation about Ukraine at face value. One way to counter this is to expose more and more people to Ukraine. Anyone who has ever welcomed international guests to Ukraine will confirm visitors are almost always impressed by what they encounter. The European lifestyle, beautiful people and friendly hospitality of the country tend to come as a complete surprise to first-time visitors who typically arrive with low expectations. They then leave Ukraine filled with positive impressions and often go on to become unofficial ambassadors for the country. Ukraine desperately needs this kind of engagement with the outside world. With Ukraine now the cheapest destination in Europe, there has never been a better time to promote the country’s tourism sector. However, with a range of existential challenges to handle and no spare funds for strategic promotional activities, the cash-strapped government is in no position to take the lead in showcasing Ukraine’s tourism appeal. Instead, the private sector will have to take up the challenge, supported by the legions of grassroots volunteers and activists who play such a huge role in today’s Ukraine.