The war stifles tourism in Odessa

“I don’t know if the guys who launch the missiles pay attention to me UNESCO map”, jokes Ivan Liptoga, head of tourism and culture in Odessa. Last February, the historical center of this city was included in the World Heritage List due to the threat of destruction from the Russian invasion. The main Ukrainian city on the shores of the Black Sea, Intercept these days of continuous Russian bombing, has barely survived as one of the country’s economic engines driven by tourism, trade, and transportation. The Kremlin’s occupation of Crimea in 2014 was already a blow, and when the light was seen at the end of the pandemic tunnel, at the end of 2021, came the great invasion ordered by Vladimir Putin in February last year. “This recognition from UNESCO is very important because it helps us to protect ourselves from the external enemy as well as to preserve our heritage internally,” says Liptoga.

The bombing in the past three days targeted some of the seven ports in the region, which made Odessa the main center for exports and imports in the country. Its coast was last year a shuttle for Ukrainian grain production to the whole world thanks to the so-called Black Sea Initiative, a safe passage despite the war that Russia refused to extend last Monday. Amid Kiev’s expressed desire to continue hauling ships with grain, Moscow responded by firing missiles for three consecutive days at the port and grain storage infrastructure, though homes and businesses were damaged. Russia also indicated that these attacks represent “retaliation” for those who did so Ukraine is carrying out against the interests of the Kremlin in the occupied Crimea.

The war left behind some amazing characters today in three of the most visited cities in Ukraine: Lviv, Kyiv and Odessa. Until 2013, the year before the occupation of Crimea, nearly half of all arrivals from abroad were Russians. They were followed by Belarusians, Moldovans, Poles and Romanians. The number of Russians rose to 75% in the case of Odessa, details Leptoga, 43, who has been in the sector for more than 20 years. These tourists came to spend four or five times as much as the local traveler, which made it possible, despite the seasonality associated with spring and summer, to last all year.

Street in central Odessa last Friday afternoon.Luis de Vega Hernandez

On the eve of the big invasion, a Russian family hired a guide, Artem Vasyuta, 36, to visit Odessa for a week in August. That voyage never took place, and Vasyuta, with no excursions booked, decided a few months earlier to also become a cab-driver to maintain the family economy; His wife, who also works as a guide, is pregnant and is now unemployed. They couldn’t complain about how their lives were going, he says during a stroll through town that includes everything from the last bombed places to Lanzeron Beach. There are some animators there and a ban on showering after the remains arrive Flood caused by the explosion of the Nova Kajovka Dam, more than 200 kilometers away. In 2021 we put in about $20,000 [cerca de 18.000 euros]which is a good number here in Ukraine, and we were hoping to get to around 25,000 in 2022,” he explains. Now he can’t stop thinking about two Marshals who died in the war, one in Mykolaiv and the other in Bakhmut.

With a job opportunity on the horizon, 25-year-old Tanya Affair begins training as a guide before the Russian invasion. He arrived in Odessa at the age of sixteen to escape the occupation of his home city of Donetsk, when the war had only spread to eastern Ukraine. Conflict, murder, and a dramatic family history with the deaths of her brother and father at the hands of the Russians led her to need help in 2017. “I didn’t know what post-traumatic stress was until I realized I had it. Mental health is a big problem in this country,” says this woman, who doesn’t stop thinking about potential projects she could take on in the face of a reality going against the grain. Odessa summer 2023 is “heaven” compared to the previous year.

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Bathers at Lanzheron Beach in Odessa, southern Ukraine.
Bathers at Lanzheron Beach in Odessa, southern Ukraine.Luis de Vega Hernandez

“It would have been worse if the Russians had gotten here,” says Violeta Diduk, 42, an optimist and another tour guide who these days rents three or four times less tours than before. He notes that the majority are refugees from other regions or locals who entertain themselves by getting to know their city. Only a few foreign journalists and volunteers.

The last of the 150 cruise ships that docked each season in the Odessa port, which had a population of 1 million in 2021, did so on May 2, 2014, the year Russia illegally seized Crimea, the tourism chief recalls. Today, the coastline of more than 350 kilometers, many with white sand beaches, is a wasteland for visitors compared to a decade ago. “Morally and morally,” he, in the heat of the war, realizes that it is not worth continuing to look for alternatives to the Russians as they did with the Chinese, Saudis, Europeans, or with the Ukrainians themselves when their main clients disappeared due to the conflict over the past decade. In addition, “everything had to be closed on February 24, 2022,” laments Leptouga, referring to the first day of the great Russian invasion, a few meters from The Opera and Ballet Theater is one of the city’s emblemswhich keeps its programming with a local audience these days.

Vasyuta had just launched his new tour in Jewish Odessa on February 22, 2022, and just one day before, on the 21st, he celebrated International Tour Guide Day with dozens of his colleagues. “During that event I had a bad feeling. I thought it would be our last meeting in peace,” he points out, still amazed at not being wrong.

Nusya Verkhovska, Acting Director (military incumbent) of the Odessa Jewish Museum.
Nusya Verkhovska, Acting Director (military incumbent) of the Odessa Jewish Museum.Luis de Vega Hernandez

Odessa is the best example of a multicultural and multiethnic city, explains Ivan Leptoga, the great-great-grandson of a Greek, Yannis Lykardopoulos, who came to the city and married a Cossack. In the nineteenth century, Jews made up half of the population. Today they barely exceed 1%, explains Neuss Verkowska, 36 and interim director of the Jewish Museum, because the owner is registered with the army. At the height of the summer season, hardly two or three people visit this place a day compared to fifty before the war.

“My children are the seventh generation of Jews in Odessa and this museum is like another son to me,” says Verkhovska. That is why, after eloping as a family to Germany last year, they decided to return four months ago. Odessa is a country within a country. I didn’t feel much attachment to Ukraine, but now because of the war I feel like a Ukrainian Jew,” she says as she caresses display cabinets containing some of her ancestors’ items. “I want a gun and fight,” asks his 12-year-old daughter Karin, who “in Germany became very depressed and drew pictures with Matt Butcha After watching the news. It was very difficult.”

A man on the beach of Lanzheron in the city of Odessa.
A man on the beach of Lanzheron in the city of Odessa.Luis de Vega Hernandez

In the middle of the war and with a curfew from midnight to five in the morning, the building was forced to close at 10:00 pm, as the famous Odessa night still mortally wounded. The centre, amidst that dainty architecture that UNESCO wants to protect, is a hive of people of all ages at sunset on Friday but, like Cinderella, they leave for their homes just as the city begins to fall apart.

Nikita Hirenko is a brave 25-year-old who in July 2022, with Odessa more idle than now, decides to open the Hoppy Hog pub. “It was now or never,” he says, referring to a plan he’s already had in mind since before the pandemic arrived. “It works very well and is a good meeting place, though we cannot forget that we are in a country at war,” he explains as he shows off the buildings’ war decoration, part of the profits of which goes to help the troops. It has several helmets, the remains of a Russian armored vehicle painted white Z, and even the remains of an enemy fighter jet’s fuselage. “It’s from a Sukhoi plane dropped in front and brought to me when it was warm almost as a birthday present on September 13th,” he says, sipping on one of the many beers they’ve brewed.

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