SLAVSKE, Ukraine — Ukraine's war-battered economy is expected to shrink by at least a third this year, hitting virtually every sector. This includes the tourism industry, which officials say had started to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic before Russia invaded Ukraine in February.
But the Ukrainian government still hopes its people will continue to travel within the country — and spend money in locales on the Black Sea and in the Carpathian Mountains in the west.
"A lot of people in Ukraine still don't feel it's OK to go on vacation or travel," Mariana Oleskiv, chair of Ukraine's State Agency for Tourism Development, tells NPR.
More than seven months into the war, "we understand that many people in our country live in very bad conditions, that some people don't have electricity and our soldiers sleep in trenches," she says.
According to agency data provided to NPR, domestic tourism, which the agency defines as leaving your home city for leisure, increased 24% between 2019 and 2021. Nearly 4.2 million foreign tourists visited Ukraine in 2021 — a 30% jump over the previous year.
Oleskiv says she forecasted that the trend would continue into 2022, but then the war started.
Trips into Ukraine by international tourists are down between 85% and 90%, says Oleskiv. Tour operators in safer areas of Ukraine reported to the government that occupancy rates are down 50% this summer compared to last. She says tourism in places such as Odesa and other parts of southern Ukraine closer to the front line of the conflict has "stopped completely."
The slowdown is being felt across the country, including in the Carpathian Mountains, a popular vacation destination in the relatively safe western part of the country.
Katerina Minich manages the Dvir Kniazhoiy Korony hotel in Slavske, a popular ski resort town about 85 miles south of Lviv. Minich tells NPR that the number of guests at her 15-room hotel is down about 60% from last year.
"Overall, from February to [August], the hotel's earnings are 70 to 80% lower" compared to last year, Minich said by text message. She says other hotels in Slavske, whose population has shrunk since the war broke out, have experienced a similar drop in guests and revenues.
The true damage Russia's full-scale ground invasion has wrought on Ukraine's domestic tourism sector won't be fully known for months, Oleskiv says. But her agency plans to start trying to turn things around with a new tourism campaign called "Get Inspired by Ukraine" — which she says aims to tell Ukrainians they have a right to take a rest.
"At some point, we need to stop and take a breath and don't be so involved in the news," Oleskiv says.
Some Ukrainians are already following the advice.
"I think that in order to be more effective, you have to relax sometimes," Natalii Baliuk, 35, from Kyiv said on a visit to Slavske in August. "Otherwise, you just will not be able to do anything and you cannot serve this country."
Baliuk and her friends traveled to the Carpathians for Ukrainian Independence Day not only because they believed it to be safe, but also because one of her friends could not travel abroad because martial law prevents men between the ages of 18 and 60 from leaving Ukraine.
The conflict in Ukraine could affect tourism throughout all of Europe, according to a report by the Economist Intelligence Unit. Russian and Ukrainian tourists spend a combined $45 billion a year, but that number is expected to decrease. In addition to the loss of tourists, the report says the conflict will also raise food and fuel prices, affect traveler confidence and disposable incomes, and restrict airlines and airspace.