The positive vibes among international visitors who visited the 2017 Eurovision Song Contest in Kyiv earlier this year confirmed once again that people who actually come to Ukraine tend to be very pleasantly surprised. This favorable reaction is partly due to the low expectations most first-time visitors to Ukraine bring with them. They generally expect to find a drab and dreary nation wallowing in poverty and, for the past few years at least, ravaged by war. These unwelcome recent associations with armed conflict have joined a long list of negative stereotypes that serve to undermine Ukraine’s international image, including everything from the Chornobyl disaster to sex tourism.
As Eurovision amply demonstrated, the best way to beat these clichés is to let people see for themselves. The song contest sparked a flurry of enthusiastic international press reports about Kyiv, with gushing tourism articles appearing everywhere from CNN and British tabloid newspapers to the hipster press. Taken together, this media blitz represented the most intensive blast of positive Kyiv coverage in living memory. It also offered some useful pointers for Ukraine as the country seeks to improve its international image.
Ukraine should now seek to build on the success of Eurovision by hosting further attention-grabbing international events that will bring foreign visitors and the international media to the country in large numbers. Ideally, Ukraine should aim high and bid for the right to stage top tier events like Formula 1, the football World Cup and the Olympic Games. This may sound somewhat fantastical, but doubters would do well to remember that Ukraine successfully co-hosted the UEFA European Championships just five years ago. Kyiv certainly has many of the natural attributes for a spectacular Summer Olympics, with water sports events on the Dnipro River a particularly photogenic attractive option. Meanwhile, a Winter Olympics in the Ukrainian Carpathian Mountains would do wonders for the region’s profile as a winter holiday destination while also improving infrastructure for the development of the tourism industry.
A Ukrainian World Cup is certainly an enticing prospect but the nationwide nature of the events means that it would presumably have to wait until the final settlement of the ongoing hybrid war with Russia. Currently Russian-occupied Donetsk would be an obvious host city, much as it was during Euro 2012, while Dnipro, Odesa, Lviv, Kyiv, and Kharkiv would all be strong candidates to stage World Cup ties.
Luckily, Kyiv will be able to demonstrate the city’s credentials as a leading football destination in spring 2018 when the Ukrainian capital plays host to the UEFA Champions League Final. This prestige game will attract tens of thousands of visitors including a glittering array of VIPs and the global sporting media, making it the perfect opportunity to highlight Kyiv’s ability to stage a major global sporting spectacle.
Hosting international events is a notoriously expensive undertaking, but it is arguably a better investment than equally costly advertising campaigns and other PR initiatives designed to improve unfavorable international perceptions of Ukraine. Given the damage caused by the country’s poor international image and low profile, it would arguably be a justifiable use of state funds.
Investing in the country’s branding is a long overdue and crucial factor in the struggle to attract international investment. Ukraine has largely neglected the image issue for the past twenty-five years and is now living with the results of this neglect. The country’s low international profile left Ukraine uniquely vulnerable to the relentless Russian information attacks that have unfolded since 2014 and unable to establish effective counter-narratives of its own. Even now, after three years of unprecedented international media coverage of Ukraine, the amount of factually inaccurate and outright false information published about the country remains staggering.
The event host route to better international perceptions of Ukraine also fits well with the country’s love of public holidays and suits the culture of frenzied preparations that Ukrainians inherited from the Soviet past. Most of the major renovation and construction projects of the past twenty-five years have featured schedules designed to coincide with a particular event, anniversary or public holiday such Independence Day or Euro 2012. This has proven a particularly effective approach, providing the clarity of clear guidelines and non-negotiable deadlines.
The legacy of hosting major international events would go far beyond the boost they can provide to Ukraine’s image. The infrastructure benefits of Euro 2012 are still very much evident, particularly in terms of new regional airports in Kharkiv and Lviv. However, the main reason why event hosting is such an attractive proposition for Ukraine remains the opportunity it provides to debunk the many myths about the country. Ukraine does not really need smart slogans or slick advertising campaigns. All it needs is increased exposure. The more people come to Ukraine, the better the country’s international image will become. The challenge now is to find ways of enticing as many visitors as possible.