Since 2016, Ukraine has quietly been experiencing a tourism boom – not least due to the development of low-cost flights linking the country to the rest of Europe. The figures registered by Ukrainian airports during this period (+277% at Zhuliany (Kyiv), + 359% at Kharkiv, and even +389% at Lviv) are impressive. Admittedly, it mainly reflects the fact that Ukrainians are now able to travel visa free to the European Union. But on every plane –whether departing from Berlin, London, or Dortmund –there are a few tourists coming to explore one of the last hidden gems in Europe.
When asking locals where to go in Ukraine, they will tend to recommend Lviv, Odesa, and Kyiv. No doubt, these are must-see destinations for anyone wanting to discover the country. Lviv is at the crossroads of Central and Eastern Europe, and perhaps the most significant cradle of Ukrainian culture. Odesa, while being the capital of mass tourism in Ukraine, was able to maintain some of its 19th century flair and remains famous for its Jewish past, immortalised by Isaac Babel. Kyiv is one of the most vibrant capital cities in the world, with an extraordinary food scene. It is one of the rare cities where the fire of freedom still burns so intensely.
But the largest country in Europe should not underestimate the power of attraction of its other assets. Kharkiv, for example, is often unjustly derided as a city with little to show, despite displaying a variety of the finest examples of Soviet architecture and having outstanding parks, bars, and restaurants. Even in gloomy January, it is a perfect destination even for first time visitors. Another lesser known attraction is the Museum of Long-Range and Strategic Aviation in Poltava. It is located on an active air base that was already used during the Second World War. It is the only museum in the world exhibiting the heavy supersonic bomber Tupolev Tu-160, and one of the only museums where it is possible to explore the cockpit of the exhibits without being hindered by a sheet of acrylic glass. The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is an unusual attraction, but has become one of the most popular sights in contemporary Ukraine. According to Oleksandr Kovalchuk, the Acting Head of the State Agency on Exclusion Zone, in his report to the Ukrainian parliament, almost 120,000 tourists, of whom 80% are foreigners, visited the zone in 2019. Ukrainian authorities have started understanding the potential of the site, so much that President Zelenskyy signed a decree turning the area into an “official tourist attraction.” This is an encouraging first sign, but the authorities need to be careful not to denaturate what makes the zone so special in the first place.
Tourists take photos near the ill-fated Chernobyl Nuclear Reactor on July 10, 2019. Photo: EPA
Aside from official initiatives, the Ukraїner project, founded in 2016, originally aimed at showing the country from every angle to a domestic audience that often does not leave its home region. The project covered all 16 historic regions of Ukraine. It later expanded to international audiences by providing English subtitles for a significant number of their videos. It may have become the best resource and marketing tool for sights that are not featured in the traditional travel guides. The success of Ukraїner with its 86,000 subscribers on YouTube and the release of a full-length movie last year will hopefully pave the way for further initiatives of the same kind.
The Arch of Friends, Poltava, central Ukraine. Photo: depositphotos
When Ukrainians themselves realise how much there is to see in their own country, how diverse it actually is, when they become more confident and proud of what Ukraine has to offer, this will not only lead to a boost in domestic and international tourism. 30 years after independence, it may further help cementing Ukrainian unity and identity.
/By Theo Pauthonier, a French-born research assistant specializing in international arbitration and a self-proclaimed Ukraine fan