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Tourist Season A Washout In Annexed Crimea

Empty Beaches At Crimea's Tourist Resorts
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WATCH: Empty Beaches At Crimea's Tourist Resorts

If some Crimeans are still enthusiastic about their region's annexation by Russia, tourism workers are not among them.

With Crimea now under Russian control, Ukrainians, who traditionally account for two-thirds of tourists to the region, are snubbing it in favor of other destinations.

European vacationers, deterred by Russia's controversial takeover and the current bloodshed between government forces and pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, are also steering away from Crimean shores.

Moscow has pulled out all the stops in an effort to boost the number of Russians spending their summer break on the peninsula.

But as the promised stream of Russian visitors fails to materialize, the many Crimeans relying on tourism for their livelihoods are reporting catastrophic losses.

"This season has simply fallen through," says Lyudmila Zaitseva, who runs a small tourist agency in the seaside resort of Yevpatoria. "For me, joining Russia has brought many troubles."

Zaitseva says business is so slow this year that she has had to fire her three employees.

The last time this happened was in 1970, when we had a cholera epidemic.

"I still go to the office, but there's almost nothing for me to do there," she tells RFE/RL. "Never before have I had spare time to go to the beach in the summer."

If Zaitseva is hoping for company down by the seaside, she's not getting it.

Yevpatoria's beaches, usually jam-packed with tourists at this time of the year, are now eerily empty.

"There's no one there," laments Zaitseva. "The last time this happened was in 1970, when we had a cholera epidemic."

According to Crimea's Resort and Tourism Ministry, the flow of vacationers dropped 35 percent in the first half of this year.

Last month, the peninsula celebrated its one-million-and-first tourist this year -- a Russian woman who was eventually awarded a free hotel stay by the ministry.

The figure, however, is a sharp drop from the 1.7 million vacationers who traveled to Crimea over the same period of 2013.

This is ominous news for Crimea, where tourism has long been a cornerstone of the economy.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered the price of round-trip air tickets from Moscow to be reduced to $214, compared to a normal fare of $385.

Russian authorities are also offering subsidized train tickets to Crimea.

A round-the-clock call center has been set up to assist potential vacationers, state-run television channels relentlessly advertise the peninsula as a tourist haven, and several state-owned corporations have answered government calls to buy package tours to Crimea for their employees.

Price Rises

So far, these measures have failed to offset the loss of tourists from Ukraine.

Compounding the problem is a relentless campaign by state-controlled Russian television to portray Ukraine as a strife-torn country teeming with Russian-hating skinheads.

To reach Crimea by land, most Russians have to travel through Ukraine.

In addition to tainting Crimea's image as a beach paradise, the annexation has also caused significant discomfort for vacationers.

A lone tourist on the beach in Crimea
A lone tourist on the beach in Crimea

Local prices have shot up by about 30 percent since the region switched to the ruble. And with most banks pulling out of Crimea in recent months, withdrawing money has also become an issue.

The Russian Federal Tourism Agency has warned of "possible difficulties with the use of credit cards" in Crimea, saying as few as 56 cash machines accepting Visa and Mastercard were operating across the entire peninsula.

A Russian run on food products in Crimea, significantly cheaper than in Russia, has also created shortages.

Crimean authorities have had to impose limits on the amount of flour, milk, eggs and other staples that can be taken out of the peninsula.

Transportation, however, remain the biggest hurdle.

International flights have been suspended, Western-operated cruise ships no longer dock in Crimea, and ferries carrying Russian tourists are already overcrowded.

"Airline flights cannot provide us with the necessary quantity of tourists, they have a limited capacity," says Dilyara Yakubova, a hotel and restaurant owner in Yevpatoria. "Ferries can't cope, either. When a person stands for 14-15 hours on a ferry and just as much time -- if not more -- on the way back, the holiday is a little spoiled. This is obviously not very encouraging for people who come here to relax."

Yakubova's facility caters for well-heeled tourists interested in ethnography and Crimean Tatar culture. Despite dramatically slashing prices in a bid to attract tourists, more than half of her hotel's 24 rooms remain empty.

As a result, her business is generating only a quarter of her previous revenue.

"The flow of tourists has been very, very modest," she says.

Those Russians who opted for a summer vacation in Crimea have mixed feelings about the experience.

While newcomers seem happy enough to lounge on the beach, regular tourists are not impressed by the deserted restaurants, shuttered shops, and somewhat glum atmosphere.

"It was livelier last year, it was a lot more fun," says this young Russian man vacationing in Sudak. "Now it's dead and expensive."

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