In 1782, as Catherine the Great was pondering whether to annex Crimea, her lover and military adviser Grigory Potemkin urged her on, arguing, "Russia needs its paradise."
More than two centuries later, Russia has once again reclaimed its "paradise" with the forced annexation of the Black Sea peninsula. But it remains to be seen whether Crimea, in turn, can reclaim its past reputation as a bustling tourist draw and beachfront to the elite.
Writers Alexander Pushkin, Anton Chekhov, and Lev Tolstoi all sought out Crimea's exotic climate, extolling its virtues in their work. In the Soviet era, the peninsula was the preferred playground of the communist elite and cadres of favored bureaucrats and students.
Crimea's luster, and infrastructure, has crumbled in the post-Soviet years. Many Russians are now accustomed to traveling abroad, flooding the beaches of Turkey, Spain, and the French Riviera. Those who still choose Crimea are drawn more by cheap prices and summer rave parties than by past notions of luxury.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who traveled to Crimea this week, has proposed a two-fold solution. He has quietly urged Russian lawmakers and ministry officials to scrap their summer plans in favor of a Crimean vacation. He has also ordered the state carrier, Aeroflot, to increase the number of flights to the peninsula and decrease the price of airfare from an average of 15,000 to 7,000 rubles or less.
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The aim, Medvedev said, is to make Crimea travel accessible and affordable -- "more so than foreign destinations like Turkey and Bulgaria."
An overnight transformation is unlikely. Aeroflot has dutifully announced its "social responsibility" to lower air prices. Russia is also contemplating new legislation to make Crimea a gambling zone. But travel agencies, normally busy with summertime bookings for Crimea, say current instability and the threat of war with Ukraine have already cut tourism by 30 percent.
'We Hope Russians Will Come'
Irina Turina, a spokesperson for Russia's state tourism board, Rosturizm, says it may take years of investment and infrastructure-building for Crimea to return to form. The current standoff with Ukraine also means that many Russians will be reluctant to travel by car -- a trip that currently requires a potentially hostile border crossing. But Turina is confident that Russians will eventually return en masse.
"Crimea is a nostalgic destination for Russians, something they've loved since childhood," she says. "Even though it was part of Ukraine until not long ago, it's always been considered domestic tourism because to get there you didn't need a passport or visa, nothing. There's a beautiful coastline there, very diverse, and you also need to factor in that Russia has a long, cold winter and 80 percent of Russians like to take their vacations at the beach -- to the seaside when the water is warm."
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The tourism industry is critical to the economic well-being of Crimea, which draws an average 6 million tourists a year to its coastline, mountains, and historic buildings like Chekhov's custom-designed White Dacha, the neo-Gothic Swallow's Nest castle in Yalta, and the Massandra winery, which boasts a million-bottle collection.
Russians now account for one-third of the tourism inflow, Ukrainians for another third, and foreign tourists for the remainder. (The U.S. magazine "National Geographic" last year gave Crimea a No. 1 ranking in its "best trips" edition.)
Many of the peninsula's native Tatars profit informally from tourism, renting out small houses and apartments. Most large hotels and sanatoriums, by contrast, are run by Crimea's Russian majority, who are predictably enthused about the territory's switch in allegiances and the pledge of support from Moscow.
"Everyone is expecting and hoping that, after the annexation with Russia, that more Russians will start coming here than have been coming in the past few years," says Daria, a hotel worker in Yalta who did not give her last name. "Last year, the number of Russian tourists versus Ukrainian tourists was roughly 50-50. But because of what's going on in Ukraine right now, it's not likely that we're going to get many Ukrainians this year. The economic situation there is complicated. We're already essentially a different country, so we hope Russians will come."
Written by Daisy Sindelar in Prague based on reporting in Moscow by Lyubov Chizhova