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Tourism, travel in slow lane

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April 1, 2009, 11:08 p.m. | Ukraine — by Yuliya Popova
Despite hryvnia’s fall, no visitor boom in sight. In a blitz television promotion on CNN, a bird’s eye view of Ukrainian landscapes made for stunningly beautiful images of the nation. Had the camera zoomed in closer, however, one would see dilapidated castle walls, polluted forests and outdated infrastructure.

The financially strapped tourism industry is proving to be a bit of a hard sell. Russians can find their way around easily. Sex tourists and pedophiles also seem to feel at home in Ukraine.

But while the lower-valued hryvnia might stimulate an influx of all kinds of travel, tourists still face the same old problems: Bad or over-priced service and little help navigating the nation. A visitor needs a good handle on the Russian or Ukrainian languages as well.

The State Tourism Committee audaciously cites the ever-rising influx of foreign visitors to Ukraine each coming year as evidence that a tourism boom is under way.

In 2008, their number was 25 million, up two million from the year before, with Russians leading the way. Given the historic ties and imperfection in methods of gathering statistics, many Russian “tourists” may actually be in Ukraine on business or visiting relatives.

“Confidence in Ukraine is growing,” said tourism committee chief Anatoliy Pahlya. His assurance, however, is at odds with the prevalent international posture that Ukraine is a nation perpetually on the brink of disaster.

Pahlya said the tourism industry would struggle through the crisis with the government-promotion budget cut tenfold, to Hr 2.5 million, in 2009. Apart from salaries, the scarce funds will be used to create more tourist centers and organize tourist routes. A must-have in any country, information centers are in short supply in Ukraine. There are only 48 of them in the nation of 46 million people.

The only easy-to-find tourism bureau in the capital is snug inside the Ukrainian House at one end of Khreschatyk Street. Run independently from the state, it occupies a small kiosk with dozens of books on Ukraine in different languages. “Ten years ago we didn’t even have maps or guide books,” said Yanina Gavrylova, head of the center. “Now the problem is with finding premises. The city [council] doesn’t give us anything.”

Instead, the Kyiv city administration announced that it launched a 24-hour English-speaking hotline “to help our international guests with any situation,” according to its promotional flyer. Those stuck in the lift or unable to read street signs in Cyrillic are invited to use the service for Hr 9.90 per minute. However, when the Kyiv Post rang the number, an operator could barely answer a question “do you speak English?” with a short “no, you do.” The mayor’s hotline in Ukrainian language said they were unaware of an English-language service.

The Ukrainian House bureau, on the other hand, provides culture tips, traveling advice and route calculations in three different languages for free. However, when a tourist arrives in Boryspil airport, he or she will not find their ad in free city guides as those are peppered with ads of seductive masseurs and sexy escorts. Museums and scenic walks, in comparison to a female flowerbed blooming all year round, must be a hard sell.

David Hall, an antiques and fine art dealer from England, discovered all that and more back in 2006 when he visited Ukraine for the first time. “The hotel was well up to international standards but I found it slightly odd that a receptionist felt she should tell me where the strip clubs were,” he recalled. “And the guy at the door asked if I needed any extra company.”

Brett Ousley, owner of the marriage agency Kiev Connections, is not surprised with the trend. “As a percentage of the men that are coming here, I believe there are substantial numbers of men who are inappropriate and are here only for the women.” In the last few years, Ousley noticed that men who “you would want your sister to marry” got tired of being scammed by local women and stopped coming. He blames unstable politics, economy and low moral fiber for growing sex tourism. “Ukraine reminds me of the Titanic. It’s ripped absolutely open on the side and the ship is going down but nobody knows it here. They are deaf and no one’s getting into the lifeboats. I really don’t understand it.”

Pahlya from the State Tourism Committee said that “discussions about it [sex tourism] are being held. But how to eradicate a biological need which existed for centuries?” he asked.

While the tourists are by all means welcome to Ukraine through visa-free entry for Europeans, and North Americans introduced in 2005, they are in for an experience, which may prove more authentic than they actually want. Visiting Ukraine for four years now, antiques collector Hall has found that not many things have changed, except that he now notices more potholes on the roads. “The museums, when one has found them, have interesting collections if somewhat old-fashioned in their display and the buildings somewhat neglected with buckets around for the leaks,” he said. “However, it also adds charm to the tour.”

Ousley, who has been living here since 2001, thinks that Ukraine is doing everything it can to keep tourists from coming back.

“You steal, lie and cheat tourists. You treat them like garbage. Take wallet drop scams – it happened to many of my clients more than three times in a day. If it’s happening so often, the police don’t care. At night, when my clients are walking back to their apartment, romantic with a nice girl, police stop them and hassle them for $100 and say they are going to take them to jail.”

Aware of these shortcomings, the state tourism service said they are working day and night to improve Ukraine’s image abroad. Meanwhile, the “Beautifully Yours” campaign on the CNN commercial may realistically have more to do with a particular type of Ukrainian women than sightseeing gems and a hearty welcome.
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