Odessa: The war drives away the tourists

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Before the war, Odessa, the multicultural city on the Black Sea coast, attracted tourists from all over the world. The invasion of Russia changed everything: the war took a toll on tourism.

Odessa's Opera House is so beautiful

Odessa is in the headlines right now. A ship carrying Ukrainian grain left the port of Odessa for the first time in months. It's a small sign of hope. We in Odessa never give up hope. Our city stands for joie de vivre, it is a multicultural city – and it was a popular vacation spot by the sea. 

Before the war, Odessa was an attractive destination not only for Ukrainians, but also for foreign tourists. Over 4 million came in 2021 to relax on the beach, explore the old town or visit the castle in Bilhorod-Dnestrovsky, for example. It's all over. I made a living from tourism, worked as a tour guide in Odessa and wrote about the city. The invasion changed my life – and everything in my hometown of Odessa. February 24, 2022 was a turning point.

Our author Natalia Vlasenko with a Belgian colleague before the war in the Odessa Opera House

February: Odessa in shock

In the first days after the beginning of the war, there was great uncertainty everywhere, even panic – people were queuing in front of supermarkets. Fearing food shortages, they began stockpiling supplies. The picture was the same in front of ATMs: fearing a collapse of the monetary system, people withdrew as much cash as possible. I felt totally lost during this time. My life was suddenly turned upside down, I had no more work, just an uncertain future.

Odessa was in shock, as was I. The streets were deserted, only supermarkets and pharmacies remained open. Everything else, cafes, restaurants, theaters, just about every venue was closed. Public life no longer took place. People only went out to get groceries and to walk their dogs. A change only became noticeable in April. With spring, life returned to the city. People went out again, people met in the parks, children reclaimed the public playgrounds.

Before the war, Odessa's beaches were full of people, today bathing is too dangerous – the sea is mined

August: life goes on

Life in the city feels almost normal these days. The main shopping streets are lively, the shops are open, street artists perform, the restaurant terraces are crowded, you can even go to the opera or a ballet. There are even some city tours offered again. Only the sandbags designed to protect landmarks and the barricades on public buildings are reminders that we are at war. Primorski Boulevard, a popular boulevard and one of Odessa's tourist highlights, also remains cordoned off for safety's sake.

At night the city is quiet, from 11 p.m. there is a curfew. Nightclubs are not allowed to hold parties. Before the war it was very different – Odessa never slept. There was open-air cinema on the beach, concerts, revelers crowded the streets, the city vibrated with life. I loved this vibe. This summer, nights are eerily still.

A vibrant nightlife – that's what Odessa has been since months

A summer without tourists

Summer has always been the main season in Odessa. Most tourists came between May and October. In 2021 it was 4 million, almost as many as before the COVID pandemic. The 2022 season was promising, it was going to be a good year. The corona rules fell everywhere in Europe, entry conditions were relaxed and tourism picked up speed. But then Russia invaded our country.

The guests stay away. Most beach hotels like the popular Nemo struggle with low occupancy rates. Nobody wants or is allowed to go to the beach, the coast that made Odessa so charming – it's mined. There is a strict bathing ban. You still see people driving to the beach, at least to take a quick look at the sea. Some ignore the bathing ban and go swimming. There have been terrible accidents because mines exploded. Some hotels therefore offer day passes for their swimming pools as an alternative.

Despite its good location directly on the sea, the Hotel Nemo has no international guests – the war is to blame

The hotels in the historic center are doing a little better, mainly foreign journalists are accommodated there, as well as some Ukrainians from other parts of the country. “Our hotel occupancy has fallen to 15-20%, most journalists stay at the Alexandrovskiy. In the M1, which is closer to the beach, mostly Ukrainians from Kyiv have booked,” says Tatiana Prodan, manager of the Maestro hotel group, to which the Both hotels belong. 

Cultural offerings in times of war

Leisure activities in Odessa have shrunk. The museums are closed and have brought their holdings to safety. Such as the Art Museum and the Museum of Western and Oriental Art. “We had plans in the drawer as to how we would proceed in the event of a crisis. But when the worst happened, we were in shock,” explains Stanislav Kinka, a researcher at the Historical Museum. Using a priority list, museum staff packed up the most valuable exhibits and moved them to a safe location as quickly as possible.

Sandbags protect the opera house

The museums are closed, but concerts and theaters can be visited again, so the Philharmonic Theater has reopened. And charity concerts are held in the Odessa City Park. The opera house, which is protected with sandbags, also maintains its cultural offerings. For security reasons, only 30% of the usual number of spectators will be admitted. When sirens sound, the performance is halted and spectators have the choice of exiting the building or taking refuge in the basements beneath the theatre. If the interruption does not exceed one hour, the performance will continue. If it lasts longer, the guests can make a new appointment with the same ticket. 

Before During the war I took many international guests to Odessa's sights

My new reality

Summer has always been my busiest time for me. I organized excursions and city tours. Every week was packed with appointments, I showed groups and foreign tourists the most beautiful parts of Odessa. On weekends I had up to three excursions with tourists from Ukraine who were vacationing on the coast. Now the tourists stay away because of the war and I don't have a job anymore. I loved showing my homeland, especially to foreign guests. When will I be able to do this again? I'm sure many people are interested in Ukraine, want to get to know our country and the people. But for that to happen, this war has to end and travel has to be safe again.

Until then I'll live in two realities: in Odessa with its open restaurants, the cultural offerings, the leisure time offerings. And in war, with the daily threat of bombing raids. The frontline changes daily, I never know what tomorrow will bring. Or if there is tomorrow.

  • Natalia Vlasenko's declaration of love to Ukraine

    My beloved Odessa

    My heart belongs all to Ukraine, my homeland. I love to travel and discover new places, but I'm always happy to come back home. I live in Odessa, an elegant city with a European face. Particularly beautiful are the Primorski Boulevard and the magnificent Opera House (picture), designed by Viennese architects and opened in 1887.

  • Natalia Vlasenko's declaration of love to Ukraine

    Time out at the Black Sea

    I love Odessa because of the proximity to the sea and the many hours of sunshine. Before the war, I loved going to the sea to meet up with friends for picnics or to enjoy the sunrise – it's really magical! There is a saying in Odessa: the sea can drive away any sadness, ease the pain and brighten the mood. And in my experience, that's true!

  • Natalia Vlasenko's declaration of love to Ukraine

    My work as a tour guide

    I love architecture and history and studied tourism, so I have the best qualifications to work as a tour guide. In 2016 I started showing my hometown Odessa and the surrounding area to people from many different countries. It was very nice to introduce them to my country and to get to know so many different cultures.

  • Natalia Vlasenko's declaration of love to Ukraine

    The architecture of Ukraine

    If someone asked me what my heart is most attached to, my answer would be: go for a walk and photograph architecture. I love old buildings, wooden doors and marble stairs. In Odessa I offered a tour through the less touristy part of the city, where you can discover the old courtyards with their special charm.

  • Natalia Vlasenko's declaration of love to Ukraine

    Lviv: coffee and culture

    Odessa is my favorite city, closely followed by Lviv (Lemberg). It is known for its big book fair, festivals, coffee culture and beautiful architecture. A real gem! I really hope that after the war I can meet my friends again for a coffee in the marketplace.

  • Natalia Vlasenko's declaration of love to Ukraine

    In search of that special detail

    I often walked around the city with my friend Iryna from Lviv to explore old courtyards and buildings and discover architectural features. Very often we were lucky and found detailed ceiling paintings or mosaic floors. Lviv was my last trip before the war, so remembering it is particularly important to me.

  • Natalia Vlasenko's declaration of love to Ukraine

    Mountain idyll in the Carpathians

    Ukraine is lucky to have both sea and mountains. The Carpathians are worth a trip at any time of the year! Here you can climb or hike, taste the local cuisine and learn more about the culture and traditions of the region. I once celebrated my birthday in the village of Pylypets and rode a cable car for the first time – one of my fondest memories!

  • Natalia Vlasenko's declaration of love to Ukraine

    Chernihiv: a city steeped in history

    When I worked as a tour guide, I organized weekend tours to Chernihiv, a city with many old churches, some of which date back to the 13th century. It hurt my heart to hear on the news that Chernihiv was under attack. I feel so sorry for the people and pained by the loss of the city's architectural heritage.

  • Natalia Vlasenko's declaration of love to Ukraine

    The beauty of Ukraine is under threat

    I have described some places that I love and that show how beautiful Ukraine is. Each region offers its own attractions: from the Kherson region with the Askaniya-Nova nature reserve, the pink lakes and tulip fields, to the monumental architecture in Kharkiv and the parks in the Mykolaiv region. Unfortunately, the war destroyed many of these special places.

  • Natalia Vlasenko's declaration of love to Ukraine

    We are Ukraine!

    I have never appreciated Ukraine and its courageous, freedom-loving people as much as I do now. We are fighting for our lives and our country, but also for the right to call ourselves a nation. We protect the Ukrainian language and culture and fight against Russian aggression and propaganda. We live in our country. We are independent. We are Ukraine.

    Author: Natalia Vlasenko