Russia’s Pitch to Vacationers: Crimea Is for Patriots


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On the waterfront in Sevastopol, Crimea. The number of visitors to the peninsula so far this year is still well below the six million who came in 2013.

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Alexander Aksakov/Getty Images

SAKI, Crimea — Tamara Tsetlayana stood on a narrow stretch of gray beach, rinsing off a thick layer of the black, ostensibly therapeutic mud that has drawn visitors to the salty lake here for more than a century.

The dreary shoreline with its view of rusted dredging equipment was perhaps less appealing than previous holiday destinations in Turkey and Europe, she said, but patriotism drove her choice this summer.

“With all these sanctions, we decided to support our own,” said Ms. Tsetlayana, expressing a sentiment that the Kremlin hoped would inspire a stampede of Russians eager to vacation in Crimea after Russia annexed the Black Sea peninsula from Ukraine last year, prompting Western sanctions.

Yet that tourist tidal wave never quite materialized.

It wasn’t for lack of trying. Workers at state-run companies received subsidized travel packages, for example, while employees of the security services were barred from vacationing abroad. The storied military history of Crimea inspired an advertising effort — one billboard campaign featured a pointing paratrooper demanding to know if YOU had signed up to be a tourist in Crimea.

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A beach near Livadia, Crimea. Officials say the economic downturn in Russia has hurt tourism.

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James Hill for The New York Times

President Vladimir V. Putin contributed his bit, too, taking a high-profile trip to Crimea this week. Past excursions have included exploits like bare-chested horseback riding or raising ancient amphorae planted on the seabed for him to “discover.” This time he went underwater in a clear bathyscaph to look at the wreck of 10th-century ship, which he said proved Russia had ancient links to the area.

The prime minister of Crimea, Sergey Aksyonov, put a brave face on the overall season, telling a Western reporter that he was sorry “to disappoint” but that millions of Russian tourists actually were coming. “Everything is all right with the tourist season,” he said. “Patriotically minded Russians gave special attention to Crimea.”

The numbers tell a different story, still well below the six million annual visitors who came in 2013, before Russia’s annexation of the peninsula. In perhaps a more telling sign, Mr. Aksyonov fired his tourism minister in June for incompetence.

Ordinary people living off tourism — guides, taxi drivers, bed-and-breakfast owners — described the season as anemic. A group of villagers along the southern “Crimean Riviera” wrote an open letter to Mr. Putin in late July saying that visitors this year amounted to just 10 percent of the number in 2013, grousing that they faced unemployment and hunger.

“People do not know how they will survive the winter,” the letter said.

Residents across Crimea cited various reasons, including a weak economy throughout Russia, transportation problems and a lack of amenities.

About 33,000 vacationers used to arrive every day by train, but Ukraine now blocks the tracks. Ferry service to southern Russia was never great, and although better organization and more boats cut the waiting time from days to hours, the volume remains limited. (The prime minister also fired the transportation minister.)

Mr. Aksyonov said there had been a huge leap in the number of passenger planes, with 106 arriving around the clock, up from around 12, bringing some 15,000 people each day.

A prodigious construction effort at the Simferopol airport more than doubled the terminal space over the past six months. Yet the airport is still hard-pressed to absorb the traffic. Some planes circle for 30 minutes awaiting a landing spot. The arrivals hall is so jammed with incoming travelers, even at 2 a.m., that those greeting passengers must wait out in the street.

Many Crimeans noted that the tenor of tourism was changing. Ukrainians were happy to rent a room within walking distance of the beach and to cook their own meals. Russians prefer hotel packages. The supply in Crimea is extremely limited, unlike in Sochi, another Black Sea resort that was rebuilt for the 2014 Winter Olympics.

“Many people in Russia have been spoiled by all those fancy resorts in Turkey and Egypt with their all-inclusive vouchers,” said Vera F. Basava, 67, a retired hospital worker hawking a rental apartment near the beach in the southern village of Gurzuf. “So they have doubts about coming here.”

Before the crisis, Ms. Basava said she rented to all kinds of people, Ukrainians, Germans, Britons. In a good season she could earn 200,000 rubles, some $6,000, to supplement a monthly pension then worth $280 and now half that.

Mr. Putin did not help matters in one of his first statements on Crimea last year by describing its resorts as below Russian standards.

In 2014, 3.8 million tourists visited Crimea, according to government statistics.

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Down the street in Gurzuf, a guide named Lena, who did not want to use her last name, was sitting under a sprawling fig tree trying to sell excursion tickets to the wineries, the palaces and the natural wonders that once made southern Crimea the playground of the czars and then the Communist Party elite.

“Last year many Russians came out of curiosity, but this is a weak season,” she said, before admonishing a visitor: “Why are you sober? You are in Crimea!”

Upscale resorts seem to be doing better than others. At the Sea Wellness Spa Hotel in Alushta, a sprawling, forested coastal property, the price of rooms ranged from just over $100 a night for a studio to more than $2,000 a night for a six-room villa with its own pool. The hotel was running at 75 percent capacity, said Maria Boriy, its commercial director.

In Yalta, Lubov V. Gribokova, the chairman of the City Council’s tourism committee, said the southern port had raked in an unexpected windfall from taxes and fees because so many Russians stayed in hotels this year.

Yalta decided to skip its usual spring beautification program, spending the money instead on the technical studies needed to snag federal road construction money, Ms. Gribokova said.

Poor infrastructure discourages tourism. Mr. Aksyonov said 80 percent of the road network needed replacing. But the Kremlin announced in June that auditors could not account for 60 percent of the money allocated for road construction last year.

During the Soviet era, many of the palaces and estates of the czarist aristocracy were nationalized and converted to health sanitariums. There are still 144 of them, and little has changed since Soviet times.

Many still offer the same menu of slightly weird science meant to improve your health: leeches to suck your blood, magnets that supposedly diminish pain, breathing in salt caves.

In Saki, the N. N. Budenko Sanitarium, a rehabilitation hospital, uses the famous local mud to treat people paralyzed in automobile accidents and other traumas, drawing visitors from across Russia and the former Soviet republics.

“Practically nothing has changed since Soviet times because it was all so effective that there was no need to tinker,” said Snezhana Kotelevich, the deputy head of all the sanitarium’s medical clinics.

The first treatment Dr. Kotelevich offered a visitor was a mud enema to address prostate problems. “All the women will be yours after that,” she said.

Asked if the hospital treated the wounded from the war in southeastern Ukraine, Dr. Kotelevich responded, “That’s a provocative question,” before allowing that the wounded from the Donetsk People’s Republic were treated at the facility. There was just one there at the time, she said, a man from the North Caucasus who could not walk and also had intestinal problems because of his wounds.

Many Crimeans in the travel business expect the industry will recover only when the grandest infrastructure project of them all is completed, a multibillion-dollar bridge linking Crimea to the mainland. But that is at least three years off.

One travel agent in Yalta keeps pictures on her computer of the huge foreign cruise ships that used to stop here, ghosts from yet another bygone era on Crimea before Western sanctions over Ukraine cut them off.

“We thought Russia would fill this place with seminars and conferences, but so far nothing,” she sighed, adding that Crimea had turned into such a “madhouse” that she did not want to give her name for fear of losing government business.



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