Russia’s annexation of Crimea stands to have a potentially devastating impact on the tourism industry, the peninsula’s economic engine.
Crimea attracted about 6 million tourists annually in 2012 and 2013. This year, Russian authorities will be hard-pressed to attract half that number, despite very costly government subsidies for air travel and vacation packages. That’s because recent statistics show that about two-thirds of tourists came to Crimea from mainland Ukraine, and roughly a third came from Russia. Visitors from other countries traditionally have accounted for a negligible percentage of tourists.
Ukrainians are unlikely to be arriving in large numbers this year because of security concerns and newly erected, and tightly-sealed, Russian checkpoints on the Crimean border. Making up for the loss of such a huge chunk of tourists will be a tremendous challenge, especially because Russian tourists can expect to encounter difficulty getting to Crimea this year too, mostly due to transport issues.
Russian officials are striving to achieve roughly 50 percent growth in the number of Russian tourists in 2014, as compared to 2013 totals. “We should strive to increase the number of tourists from Russia [to Crimea in 2014] to 3 million,” Dmitry Amunts, the deputy head of Rostourism, Russia's federal government agency regulating the tourism industry, said on April 9.
The Kremlin has pledged to send hordes of public employees on semi-compulsory, heavily-government-subsidized vacations to Crimea to support the region's tourism business and even has started a national campaign, called "Vacation in Crimea." But tourism professionals do not see the program as having a major impact.
Overall, the tourism sector is vital for Crimea's economy, responsible for generating about half the peninsula's GDP. According to a 2011 study by Kiev-based Razumkov Center, about 70 percent of Crimea's working population makes at least some money from tourism. About 50-60 percent of working adults depend on tourism for all or a significant portion of their income.
The logistics of getting more Russians to vacation in Crimea seem daunting. For Russian tourists, one of the key advantages of vacations in Crimea, as opposed to, say, Turkey or Greece, was that they could travel to the peninsula in their own cars. Roughly 50 percent of Russians visiting Crimea in 2013 drove there. The shortest route from Moscow to Crimea, via Ukraine, used to take less than a day. Now that Russians will have to make a detour around Ukraine, the trip could take up to two days each way.
Another 30 percent of Russians visiting Crimea in 2013 came by train, also via Ukraine. A detour around Ukraine will significantly increase travel time, and will require switching from a train to a bus, then to a ferry, and then again to a bus. Sales of train tickets to Crimea have been sluggish this year, according to the Federal Passenger Company, a subsidiary of government-owned Russian Railways specializing in long-distance passenger train transportation services in Russia and internationally.
The only convenient way to get to Crimea today is by plane, but it has traditionally been the least popular option due to high ticket prices, logistical constraints, and stiff competition from higher-quality, but similarly-affordable international destinations. As a result, less than 10 percent of tourists – or only about 500,000 people – traveled to Crimean by plane in 2013.
This year, Russian authorities announced 50-percent subsidies for plane tickets for Russian tourists and promised to launch new flights from cities across Russia to Crimea's capital, Simferopol, and bring the total number of Crimea-bound flights to 136 a week. However, the number of flights would need to be increased to about 600 a week to make a difference. And such a flight load isn’t feasible given the existing infrastructure, said Irina Tyurina, press secretary of the Russian Tourism Industry Union, the largest association of tourism businesses in Russia, in an interview to Echo of Moscow this week. In addition, even with the plane-ticket subsidies, vacation packages to Crimea still cost about as much as to Turkey, the number-one destination for Russian tourists.
Earlier this year, Russian travel agencies reported a large number of cancellations of vacation packages to Crimea, and while demand for Crimean vacations is now recovering, reservation numbers are still way below those of last year, Tyurina stated.