Thursday, August 21, 2014


Can Crimea Reclaim Its Role As Russia's Beach Getaway Of Choice?

Vacationers enjoy a low-frills aerial lift in Yalta, 1968.
Vacationers enjoy a low-frills aerial lift in Yalta, 1968.

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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. 

PHOTOS: Playground For The Elite
  • Crimea's Black Sea coast was already a prime vacation destination for members of the cultural elite in the dying days of the Russian Empire. Anton Chekhov -- who immortalized Yalta in works like "The Lady With the Lapdog" -- sits with Lev Tolstoi in the spa town of Haspra in 1901.
  • The last Russian tsar, Nicholas II, and his wife, Empress Aleksandra, sightseeing on the Ai-Petri mountain peak outside Yalta in 1909
  • Soviet leader Josef Stalin spent summer breaks at Yalta's Massandra Palace, and famously hosted British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt for the Yalta Conference in 1945.
  • Soviet luminaries like cosmonaut Yury Gagarin, the first man in space, were also frequent visitors to Crimea. Here, Gagarin (smoking) and composer Aleksandra Pakhmutova (far right) during a fishing trip in the resort town of Hurzuf in June 1965. 
  • Crimea was also a key destination for well-placed Soviet citizens, who competed at work and school for highly prized "kurorty," or spa trips, at resorts like the Rabochy Ugolok (Workers' Corner) in Alushta.
  • Vacationers enjoy a low-frills aerial lift in Yalta, 1968.
  • Crimea, with its warm climate and mineral springs, was seen as a place not only for relaxation, but restoring one's health. Here, guests at a sanatorium participate in calisthenics, their heads covered with towels to protect them from the sun. 
  • A beachside nurse at the Ukraina sanatorium perfoms a check-up on a vacationer from Kabardino-Balkaria in 1977. 
  • Nor was Crimea only for adults. It was also the site of Artek, a deluxe Young Pioneer camp for the offspring of Soviet bureaucrats and other children lucky enough to secure a spot through academic or athletic achievement. Marshal of the Soviet Union Semyon Budyonny pays a visit to the camp in 1946.
  • Young Pioneers line up for a group portrait. Because of the warm climate, Artek operated year-round. At its peak it hosted 27,000 children a year. 
  • Artek vacationers in 1972. The camp featured three swimming pools, a film studio, and a 7,000-seat stadium for performances and sporting events. 
  • Romania's Nicolae Ceausescu meets with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in Yalta in 1976. Brezhnev was a frequent visitor to Crimea, and continued the trend of hosting foreign guests from both inside and outside the communist bloc.
  • Despite East-West tensions, Brezhnev and U.S. President Richard Nixon shared a suprising number of relaxing moments. The Cold War adversaries went on a Black Sea boat trip during Nixon's trip to Crimea in 1974. 
  • Finally, some alone time: Brezhnev reading "Pravda" during a Crimea vacation in 1978.
  • Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin hold a walking meeting in Yalta in May 2003.
  • Putin visiting with campers -- now wearing blue scarves instead of communist-era red -- at Artek in 2001. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the camp was changed from a Young Pioneer site to an "international children's center."
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."

WATCH: Are Russians making Crimea vacation plans?
Vox Pop: Are Russians Making Crimea Vacation Plans?i
April 03, 2014
RFE/RL's Russian Service asked Muscovites if they were planning to spend their summer vacations in Crimea this year following Russia's annexation of the Ukrainian region. (Video by Mumin Shakirov of RFE/RL'S Russian Service)
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
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Quiz: How Much Do You Know About Crimea?

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