Silvia Marchetti, CNN
Visiting Ukraine now to experience what it’s like to live in the middle of a war, see its bombed cities, feel the danger and meet its fighters is not likely to be on anyone’s travel wish list.
But six months after Russia invaded the country, causing a wave of death and destruction, one organization is inviting tourists to come.
The online platform Visit Ukraine.Today last month launched daily guided tours of the so-called “Brave Cities” that have defied and continue to resist the Russian invaders, offering travelers a glimpse of how the country is living amid the conflict.
“Set off on a journey to wonderful Ukraine now,” the tour company’s website urges.
Despite international warnings against travel to Ukraine, the company says it has so far sold 150 tickets, while its website providing information on safe travel to and from Ukraine is receiving 1.5 million hits a month, up 50% on the first numbers. the invasion.
He says anyone signing up for the tour can expect walks among bomb debris, destroyed buildings, cathedrals and stadiums, as well as burnt military equipment, plus the regular wail of air raid sirens. Landmines are also a danger.
While it may seem like a wasteful way to spend the holidays, Visit Ukraine founder and CEO Anton Taranenko tells CNN Travel it’s not the same as “dark tourism” that sees visitors flock to other places of death, disaster and worldwide destruction.
Taranenko says the tournaments represent a chance for Ukraine to highlight the defiant spirit of its citizens, as well as show the outside world that life goes on, even in a war.
‘Living life no matter what’
“It’s not just about bombs, what’s happening in Ukraine today is also about how people are learning to live with war, to help each other,” he says. “There is a real change, a new spirit of the streets.
“Perhaps across the street from where a bomb recently went off, you’ll see friends eating nice traditional food in a reopened bistro.
“We are happy for a few moments, it’s not just the bad and sad things as seen on TV. Life goes on and there is hope that soon this will all be over.
“Kids are growing up, we try to live life as much as possible no matter what.”
The US State Department currently has a “Level 4: Do Not Travel” warning against Ukraine due to the Russian invasion. It urges all US citizens to leave the country immediately and warns that, following the suspension of operations at its embassy in Kiev, no consular assistance can be provided.
Similar alerts have been issued by other countries. The UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office warns there is a “real risk to life” due to attacks in cities and regions.
Still, Taranenko is urging people to visit. “If you want to see our cities destroyed and brave people fighting, please come now,” he says.
But, he adds, visitors should be aware that nowhere in Ukraine is 100% safe, although having a guide will help mitigate the risk.
“We regularly check the situation so we can monitor the different levels of security,” he says, noting that many Ukrainians have now returned to the areas they originally fled, especially the capital Kiev, because of the occupation.
“Ukraine is rising again, people are returning to the cities, municipalities are starting to rebuild, cities are recovering from the horrors, and there are a million foreigners in the country. Kyiv is now the most visitable and safest place,” says Taranenko.
To discover the country, he adds, is to look into the eyes of Ukrainians whose lives have been changed forever but who live in anticipation of victory.
Visit Ukraine has been praised by the government for its work in supporting the war-torn country’s battered tourism industry and providing information to help citizens coming and going. But there is no official approval for his current move to encourage visitors.
“Now is not the right time to visit, but after we win and the war is over, we will invite people to visit Ukraine,” Mariana Oleskiv, head of Ukraine’s State Tourism Development Agency, told CNN.
“At the state level we want Ukraine to be open to tourism, but for that we need more weapons, we need to win and stop the war. Our official position is to visit Ukraine when it is safe to visit, maybe next year, I hope.”
Oleskiv said domestic tourism had actually resumed within Ukraine, reaching up to 50% of pre-war levels despite the fighting, but it was too early and too dangerous for foreigners to come. She suggested that tours could be bought as a way to support the tourism industry.
‘How to roll a dice’
Although martial law has been imposed in Ukraine and air traffic has been suspended, Taranenko says foreign visitors can still easily travel in and out of the country, passing through the country’s eastern checkpoints with Europe.
While the trip is possible, independent travel safety experts warn against it.
Charlie McGrath, owner of Objective Travel Safety, a UK-based company that trains people for war zones, says that even areas of Ukraine that appear to be safe can pose a real danger.
“I urge extreme caution because of the continued random Russian attacks,” he told CNN. “Although far western Ukraine is relatively safe and life seems to be going on, the southeast is much more dangerous. It would be like rolling a dice.”
He says visitors will need reassurance about what protection they will be offered on the tour and what happens if they are injured or their guide is killed. There are also questions about which hospitals and local resources would be involved.
“I would recommend not doing it,” he adds.
Taranenko says that, despite the risks, there is an appetite to visit Ukraine. Of the 150 tickets sold so far, 15 have been to Americans, he says.
Tour groups will be limited to groups of 10 people. Participants will meet their guide at pick-up points and prepare how to act if a critical situation arises — such as where to take shelter if the air raid sirens go off.
“Having a guide who knows the place and exactly which direction to take is a guarantee,” he says. “If you walk by yourself 10 meters to the left, or 10 meters to the right, you can end up in a mine or a bomb.
“For example, in the area of Buca there are forests with bombs still activated that could explode at any time.”
Daily trips are 3-4 hours, but can be extended according to requirements. The company says profits from all ticket sales go to support war refugees.
Oleksii Vlasenko, 32, a Kiev-based business travel entrepreneur told CNN he took part in one of the tours in July, visiting several conflict-torn cities. He said that while he faced no apparent danger during the trip, there was an inherent risk.
“Of course there’s always a risk as the war goes on, but I think it’s different now,” he said. “People are interested in traveling to see the destruction after the war. However, I would not recommend the tour to women and children, but to young people, why not?
“In Kiev, Lviv, Bucha, Irpin, now there is a normal life, despite the rocket alarms every day, there are no more Russian occupying soldiers.”
Among the tours on offer is a collection entitled “Courageous Cities”, which take in destinations such as “Strong and Invincible Bucha and Irpin” – two locations near Kiev that were brutally targeted by Russia in the early days of the invasion.
The highlights read like a retrospective of some of the conflict’s worst headlines, with trips to bombed-out residential areas and damaged cultural treasures.
Other city tours include “Persistent and courageous Sumy”, “Kiev in a day”, “Lviv sightseeing tour” and “Odesa – a gem by the sea”.
Some areas such as Mariupol and Mykolaiv, either under Russian control or still under constant attack by Russian forces, remain off limits for the tournament.
But Taraneko is optimistic that he will be inviting visitors there next year when, he says, the war will hopefully be over.
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