SEVASTOPOL, August 21 – Restaurant owner Galina Anchukova looks out across the seaside promenade in sunny Feodosia, with its straggle of strolling tourists, and sees a wasted financial opportunity.
“The season is ruined, there is nobody here,” she said.
The first summer season in Crimea under the Russian flag has been a disappointment, local business owners complain, blaming fighting in eastern Ukraine for their troubles.
The Crimean peninsula was once the pearl of Soviet vacation spots, with hotels and spas dotting towns along the Black Sea coast.
Russia annexed the majority Russian speaking region from Ukraine in March after a pro Western government took power in Kiev.
But in a cruel irony for Crimea, the pro Russian rebellion that broke out in eastern Ukraine just afterwards, in which around 2,200 people have died, has trapped its most loyal visitors.
“Normally most of the tourists have been coming from southeastern Ukraine, but that’s where the war is and there are no more direct trains from those regions,” Anchukova said.
“We’ve got tourists from Russia, but not that many of them. We hope that next season will be better,” she added.
– Visitor numbers cut in half –
As soon as they disembark from the ferry, tourists from the nearby Russian mainland are swarmed by touts hawking cut-rate prices for hotel rooms.
“This summer there are very few tourists, and we are offering rooms at 400 rubles ($11, 8 euros) per day,” said Natalya Gorlova of the Nika tourist agency.
“Crimea’s spas are only 30 percent occupied,” Alexei Umansky, deputy head of the Russian Tourism Agency Association was quoted as saying by the RBK news agency recently.
“That’s a 50-percent drop in visitors from last year.”
Russian officials this week also confirmed the drop, saying about three million tourists had visited Crimea so far this year, half the number who came during all of 2013.
Russia’s deputy minister for Crimea, Andrei Tsemakhovich, told RIA-Novosti news agency they hoped the number would rise to 4.5 million by the end of tourist season in September.
Hostel owner Anna Konstantinova, 57, can’t remember a summer as bad as this one in Sevastopol, the port city home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.
Only one of her five rooms is rented — by a family from Saint Petersburg.
But for the opportunistic tourist, there are advantages to the lack of crowds.
“I was here two years ago and I didn’t get to see the Khan’s Palace as there were too many people,” said Anna Savtchenko from Kaluga, a city south of Moscow.
“This time I can see everything in peace. I’m taking full advantage of it.”
– Two day ferry wait –
Some of Crimea’s pro Russian residents are looking to Moscow to boost their tourism industry.
“We are very happy to be part of Russia and put our faith in (President Vladimir) Putin,” said Genia, a taxi driver in the eastern city of Kerch, where most of the ferries for the Russian mainland dock.
“For example, he could force police officers and soldiers to spend their vacations in Crimea,” he added, half in jest.
Russia did, in fact, encourage state workers to visit Crimea by offering subsidised trips, and there was a de facto ban on police and soldiers on travelling abroad.
But with few flights and waits of up to two days for a ferry, travelling to Crimea for Russians proved often to be an expensive or cumbersome proposition.
The ban also backfired, as it caused a number of tourism firms to collapse, stranding thousands of Russians abroad.
In a bid to remedy Crimea’s problems, the Russian government approved earlier this month a five-year programme to invest 660 billion rubles (13.6 billion euros, $18 billion) in the region over the next five years.
The largest part of the funds, around 250 billion rubles, is expected to go towards the construction of a bridge across the Kerch Strait, the three kilometre (two mile) stretch of shallow water separating Crimea from Russia’s Krasnodar region.
Money is also to be invested in improving tourism infrastructure, as Crimean resorts have trended to shabby since the collapse of Communism, when many Russians and Ukrainians exercised their newfound freedom to visit Mediterranean beaches instead.