Residents of the eastern port city of Berdyansk have few reasons to feel overly optimistic these days.

Their city, located some 750 kilometers to the southeast of Kyiv and home to about 115,000 people, is situated on the troubled shores of the Azov Sea, which is supposed to be shared by Ukraine and Russia.

But instead of peaceful co-usage of the waters, as per a 2003 treaty, Russia has militarized the maritime area and tightened its grip on the Kerch Strait, the narrow channel between Ukraine’s Crimea and Russia that connects the Azov and Black seas. Crimea has been under Russian military occupation since late February 2014.

Experts say that Russian naval forces are throttling Ukraine-bound commercial shipping and placing the Ukrainian port cities of Mariupol and Berdyansk under an effective blockade.


International observers warn that the cities are suffering the effects of “economic warfare” and are being strangled. They also fear that Mariupol, Berdyansk and the surrounding areas could be hit by an economic depression if the ports cannot function.

On land, the situation is even worse. Only 80 kilometers to the northeast, a simmering 5-year land war is taking place along a frontier that separates Russian-occupied parts of the Donbas region from the rest of Ukraine. The conflict has so far claimed some 13,000 lives, the United Nations says.

Yet despite all these troubles, the leisure and tourism sector in Berdyansk, for many years a popular beach town as well as a vital port city, is not only surviving but booming.

City officials expect that the city will welcome more than 1.5 million visitors this summer alone, which they say is five times more than just four years ago.

They also want to transform the city into a year-long, coastal retreat for city-dwelling families or their kids. Berdyansk has at least ten children’s health centers that together can host up to 20,000 children each season.

Vladimir Chepurny, the mayor of Berdyansk, was in Kyiv on April 18 to talk about the changes taking place in his city. At a press conference, he told reporters his city had a bright future, especially in the leisure and tourism sphere.


Tourism surge  

“Our goal is to make the resort a year-round one,” he said, as reported by the Ukrainian news service Interfax.

According to Chepurny, some holiday resorts and hotels were opening earlier in April to keep up with the growing influx of visitors.

“There is hope that they will work until December. I think that we will be able to accept more tourists due to this,” the mayor said.

Since the loss of its Crimean peninsula, invaded and illegally occupied by Russian forces in February 2014, Ukrainian holidaymakers from the east and southeast have looked to other nearby coastal resorts for their vacation.

Many have also taken advantage of low-cost airlines offering cheap package deals to sunny foreign destinations, especially during the winter months.

Berdyansk, which has similar coastline and beaches to those around the Crimean peninsula, has accommodated many Ukrainian tourists who can no longer holiday in the Russian-occupied territory.

It is a little-known fact that Berdyansk has more than a dozen white, sandy beaches scattered around the port town. Culture Trip, a popular online travel magazine, ranks Berdyansk as having Ukraine’s third-best beaches, after the nearby regions of Odesa and Koblevo, on the Black Sea coast.


“The biggest advantage of the resort is its ecological purity, large gardens and the complete absence of industrial complexes,” a Culture Trip travel author writes.

On Google and TripAdvisor, Berdyansk’s public beaches are some of the country’s best-reviewed and most popular.

The tourism surge seen by the city has been significant. Statistics show that Berdyansk only hosted about 300,000 visitors in 2015, Chepurny said. If tourist numbers pass 1.5 million by the end of summer 2019, as officials expect, there will have been a 500-percent increase in only four years.

Chepurny notes that the number of rooms available in Berdyansk is increasing by between ten and fifteen percent per year. He said that 150 accommodation providers are now operating in the city and that that Berdyansk has started cooperation programs with European twin cities in Belarus, Germany, Poland and France to bring in holidaymakers from abroad.

However, as it is cut off from the wider sea, thanks to Russia’s de-facto blockade, and badly served by road and rail on land, the city of Berdyansk needs to improve transport links and restore its airport in order to continue seeing the benefits of increased tourism numbers.


“There is a problem with our roads and airport. In Berdyansk, there used to be an airport, but at this time it is in bankruptcy. We’re now working to take it into communal ownership and gradually restore it. The nearest airport is Zaporizhia, and we need develop logistics,” Chepurny said, as reported by Interfax.

At the same time, the 200-kilometer Zaporizhia-Berdyansk highway is currently being repaired, allowing for quicker access to the coast for city-dwelling daytrippers. The mayor said he hopes it could be ready by the beginning of this year’s tourist season.

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