Tourism Development – A New Priority for Ukraine

Next year, the Ukrainian government plans to spend 240 million hryvnias [about $10 million] on developing Ukraine’s tourism potential, a more than ten-fold increase from current spending levels.  Leading the effort will be a new tourism development agency. Additionally, the national budget includes 500 million hryvnias ($21 million) for a youth mobility program – a new initiative promoting educational travel for schoolchildren within the country.

Many Ukrainian travel industry policymakers and professionals are encouraged by the new national-level focus on this sector, among them, Dmytro Naliotov, chair of the Verkhovna Rada subcommittee on tourism.  In an interview with the Zruchno.Travel website, summarizing the results of a Kyiv tourism conference organized by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, he said that “we’ve reached the stage when we need a reboot.  Currently, I see all the conditions for this, considering how much the president and prime minister are talking about tourism and taking into account the record budget for the development of tourism potential in 2020.”

How should this surge in funding be best utilized? And what should be the priorities of the State Agency for Tourism Development that is being formed in conjunction with the huge increases in funding? Up until now Ukraine lacked a cohesive national narrative and approach, and individual cities have borne the responsibility of promoting themselves and their attractions.

In an interview for this article, Mr. Naliotov’s predecessor in the parliamentary subcommittee, former MP Anna Romanova, said that the mission of the agency should be to first of all develop a strategy and provide guidance and coordination:

“I think the first step is a matter of strategy and the government should create a strategy with the participation of representatives of the tourism business, tour operators, representatives of those countries that we are interested in, plus media.”   Funding, Ms. Romanova says, should go toward engaging experts and conducting surveys about the interests of tourists and their spending habits. Another key issue is promotion of travel to Ukraine through exhibitions and various entertainment and information platforms, including broadcast giants like the Discovery Channel and National Geographic as well as social media advertising. Calendars of exhibits and major events need to be planned and coordinated.

Rather than thinking about all foreign tourists as one audience (and having the same standard Ukraine stand at all travel shows around the world, for example) she believes the strategy should be to develop tourism packages targeting five or six different priority audiences:

“For example, for Canada and the U.S. – focus on the diaspora.  The diaspora is big, over a million people – but a lot of its members have not been to Ukraine even once.  They love Ukraine, they help, they sympathize, and they rejoice with us when it comes to our victories – but they haven’t been here.”

Such a tourism package might include visits to historic sights tied to Taras Shevchenko, Ukrainian cooking classes or enjoying hutsul culture, Ms. Romanova explains.  (Many readers in North America are likely aware that this is something that some tour groups have been doing for years but, perhaps, not on the large scale that the former Samopomich party lawmaker envisions).

Besides Canada and the U.S., Anna Romanova says that Ukraine should probably try to focus on attracting tourists from China, Poland, Germany and Israel. Chinese tourists are a highly sought-after group, thanks to the significant sums of money they spend on travel to Europe.  Polish tourists are interested in visiting historic sites in Ukraine dating back to the Rzeczpospolita era with guides discussing the accomplishments and contributions of Poles who lived in these lands. German tourists have been known to flock to Ukraine for championship soccer games. Many citizens of Israel have roots in Ukraine.

A particularly unique destination in Ukraine is Chornobyl — site of the world’s worst nuclear catastrophe — made even more popular by the award-winning HBO series.  When she traveled there for an excursion, Ms. Romanova says she met a retired couple from Texas who said that the tour attracted them because “we remember when we were young and it was the Cold War and we remember how we heard about it on the other side of the ocean.  And now we are here.  Chornobyl for us is a museum of the Cold War, a museum of those times. Like landing back in time 35 years ago – and it’s very interesting.”

And another promising sector is medical tourism, based on already popular mineral and health spas like Truskavets, as well as relatively inexpensive medical services.

Still, to enable greater numbers of foreign tourists to enjoy Ukraine’s great history, architecture, culture and cuisine, the country will need vast improvements in its transportation and other tourism-related infrastructure, she notes.

Anna Romanova (R) and Adrian Karmazyn at last year’s New York Times Travel Show.

Besides being a specialist on tourism, Anna Romanova is the author of a book about her home town, titled Chernihiv – City of Legends.  The city dates back to the period of Kyivan Rus but, as she recounts, a few years ago she became keenly aware that its residents were not well versed in Chernihiv’s amazing past. She decided to collect stories, myths and legends about Chernihiv, illustrating them with the artwork of an impressive team of artists and designers.  Ms. Romanova says she wanted to “raise awareness that every day people walk by buildings where remarkable people from our history lived,” including figures like kozak hetmans Ivan Mazepa and Pavlo Polubotok, “so that people know that the everyday things that surround us are wrapped in legends, in the grand life of great people and that we are surrounded by incredible wonders.”

Anna Romanova believes that the 500 million hryvnia budgeted for the youth mobility program – a sort of domestic educational travel program for Ukrainian schoolchildren — is crucially important:

“The [program of] mobility of schoolchildren will fulfill three powerful goals:  First, it will unify the country.  Secondly – it will educate the younger generation in a national-patriotic way, creating an understanding of how interesting Ukraine is, how multicolored it is, how rich it is in tourist resources and how hospitable its people are in every corner – in the East and West, and in the North and South.   Third, it’s developing the habit of travel… You can travel and see something new and expose yourself to new horizons.  So, in any event, developing the habit of travel is a plus for the economy and the country.”

For a business perspective, this writer turned to Iryna Dudynska, Executive Manager of Vacanture, a tour operator with offices in Ukraine and France.

Her wish list for the projected 240 million hryvnia tourism development budget includes promotion of Ukraine on digital platforms, participation in international travel exhibits, inviting travel industry experts from abroad to Ukraine to share their expertise, offering English-language narratives for items displayed in Ukrainian museums, improving the look of tourism infrastructure that has fallen into disrepair and organizing visits of foreign tour operators to get acquainted with Ukraine.

Based on her company’s experience other factors influencing a person’s decision to travel to Ukraine include the availability of direct flights and their duration as well as visa-free travel or ease of obtaining a visa. Overall, Ms. Dudynska emphasized that it’s important to think about the things that Ukraine has that give it an advantage over other countries or, at least, make it competitive with them. Potential visitors are asking themselves: “Why should I choose Ukraine as my travel destination? What unique thing will I see in comparison with other regions of the world?” –- she says.

At the recent Win with the Lion tourism forum in Lviv, deputy mayor Andriy Moskalenko reminded participants about the tremendous progress that Lviv has made in recent years, attracting 2.2 million tourists in 2018, more than half coming from abroad.  As reported by the city council’s website, he said:

“Twelve years ago, we had fewer than 100,000 tourists.  We did not have the beautiful airport we have today, which is rapidly growing.  Ploshcha Rynok was packed with automobiles, there were not so many hotels and restaurants.   But a synergy of government and business developed, and gave a push for major development.  Now Lviv is an example of a certain strategy.  It’s very important to create such a strategy at the national level.”

Also speaking at that conference, Serhiy Kiral, the mayor’s adviser on international cooperation, said that “for a long time, tourism was not a priority for Ukraine, but that is changing.”  Meanwhile, while discussing what measures Ukraine needs to take regarding national tourism development, Lviv oblast governor Markiyan Malsky said Ukraine “needs uninterrupted promotion by the government: nice slogans, major events, things that will stick in people’s memories!”

Ukrainians already have great slogans like “Ukraine Now!” and “Ukraine Wow!”  In 2020, this branding will have the financial backing as well as the national-level strategy and coordination that may genuinely help bring millions more travelers from around the globe to Ukraine.

Photo at top of page: At this year’s New York Times Travel Show, an exhibition visitor at the Travel to Ukraine booth discusses travel options with Olga Sansone (L) and Iryna Dudynska, representatives of Vacanture. 

Adrian Karmazyn is a communications advisor at the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation, which organizes a Travel to Ukraine booth at the annual New York Times Travel Show.  The Agency of Regional Development of Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast, the Odesa City Council Department of Culture and Tourism, and Vacanture will be participating in the Travel to Ukraine booth at the January 24-26, 2020, exhibition in New York City.