Full hotels, busy ski resorts: Why Ukraine’s tourism sector is having a busy war
Editor’s Note: Sign up for Unlocking the World, CNN Travel’s weekly newsletter. Get news about destinations opening and closing, inspiration for future adventures, plus the latest in aviation, food and drink, where to stay and other travel developments.
The Covid pandemic caused the Hotel Leopolis in Lviv, Ukraine, to close for two months in 2020. Yet, since then, and a little more than a year after Russia invaded, the Leopolis has continued to be open for business without a pause.
The hotel’s management even decided to continue a renovation that began in 2019, completing it in the summer of 2022, at a time when air strikes were raining down on the city.
“We had to stop the renovation for a couple of months but, after discussing it with the owners, we decided to continue it to be ready when the war ends,” says General Manager Kateryna Matiushchenko.
This optimism isn’t unfounded. Even during the war, the occupancy rate of the 70 rooms at the Leopolis generally surpassed occupancy during much of Covid.
“January and February 2023 were not that bad,” Matiushchenko says. “Better than we planned, given the constant threat of massive attacks and electricity switch-offs.”
Since its opening in 2007, the Leopolis has been a popular hotel. Centrally located in Lviv’s Old Town, it sponsors an annual Leopolis Jazz Fest and is a favorite of those attending the Lviv Book Forum, Ukraine’s largest literature festival, as well as business travelers.
The hotel continues to be popular, but for different reasons.
And it seems while many aspects of life in Ukraine have ground to a halt because of the conflict, in the western part of the country, tourism infrastructure, including hotels, seems to be thriving. Even Ukraine’s ski resorts have been enjoying plenty of visitors.
Igor Gut, a frequent guest from Kyiv, often stayed at the Leopolis for Jazz Fest and business trips before the war. He’s still visiting regularly today.
“They have a lot of different places for business meetings and have maybe the best conference services in Lviv,” he says. “The room and service were important then.”
Gut stays for business but also to reunite with his wife and son who are staying in Croatia. He also likes the safety of its thick walls.
Both Gut and Finnish guest Hanna Karttunen, a dancer who, with her husband, has been volunteering in Ukraine, share their appreciation for the bomb shelter at the Leopolis.
While all functioning Ukraine hotels have shelters these days, most are in converted parking garages or long-unused cellars. The Leopolis’ is in a former cigar lounge that, in 2018, was converted into a private event space (once smoking was banned at the hotel) and also holds a small gym.
“I’ve been to shelters with the kids from the dance school where it smells like mold and everyone is trying to keep good feelings,” says Karttunen. “I know this shelter at the Leopolis is where I will go next time even if I’m at the [nearby] dance studio because it was so beautiful.”
Gut, who lives just north of Kyiv, also sometimes stays at the Radisson Blu in Kyiv. He now prefers staying in hotels as they provide an opportunity to socialize.
“You always have somebody to drink with,” he says. “To tell you the truth, I now try to be in a hotel more than at home because at home I am alone. The hotel provides some psychological support because you always have company.”
Visitors come to the Ukranian ski-resort area of Bukovel for other reasons. Sitting in the Carpathian Mountains, resorts here used to be filled with international visitors, many from Saudi Arabia and nearby countries due to relaxed visa requirements.
“When you entered the resort in 2021, it’s like you were in Dubai,” says Oleksii Voloshyn, CEO of the Edem Hotel Group which includes the HAY Boutique Hotel & Spa by Edem Family in Bukovel and the 80-room Edem Resort in Lviv.
“The hotels could get high rates and the guests were happy with the service and food and the hospitality. In 2022, none of them came because there were no flights.”
The Edem resorts are wellness venues specializing in medical/anti-aging programs as well as detox and relaxation. Before the war, 30% of their guests arrived from international locations. Now, 100% of their guests are Ukrainian.
Edem guests in Bukovel and Lviv come to escape the war, even if only for a few days.
“Ukrainians need to refresh their soul and body to continue to fight again. Everybody is a fighter now on different fronts,” says Voloshyn, who is also the vice president of the Ukrainian Hotel and Lodging Association.
The Edem group had plans to open a third resort in Kyiv in May 2022 but, as Kyiv was hit hard at the beginning of the war and intermittently throughout the past year, the opening was delayed. The hotel is now complete, and plans are to open by this summer.
A new segment in the Ukrainian hospitality industry is reunification. Families living in different cities of the country – or even in other countries – spend time together at Carpathian mountain resorts or other hotels in western Ukraine.
A key to the survival of the Ukrainian tourism market seems to be flexibility.
While hotels converted existing parking garages and lounges to bomb shelters, the Lviv Tourism Office became a media center for foreign media, says its head, Khrystyna Lebed. “Almost 3,000 foreign media representatives were registered [in 2022].”
Internally displaced persons (IDPs) who have had to relocate due to the war are also using hotels. With western Ukrainian cities generally safer, many fled to Lviv. There, the hospitality industry has welcomed and accommodated those who have fled.
According to Lebed, for the most part, Ukrainian travel companies had no work until last summer when they began organizing children’s camps in the Lviv and Zakarpattya regions, and abroad.
As for local tour guides, understandably, “the demand for guided tours dropped significantly. Later, excursions were organized more regularly for IDPs who needed emotional recovery and wanted to learn more about the city. The city tours also helped IDPs with logistics.”
Many museums are also open and adapting. “Despite the absence of many exhibits, museums have new exhibitions, such as [artist] Maria Prymachenko,” Says Lebed. “For many people, [visiting museums] is a kind of therapy. There is also a growing demand for awareness of Ukraine and its history.”
Besides keeping the tourism industry going and paying staff, like everyone in the country, they are using their experience and resources to help in the battle.
Lviv’s hospitality industry has provided food and accommodation to those displaced by the war. Hotels provided free accommodations and meals for IDPs, comfortable emergency shelters in hotels, and spaces for volunteer centers. Hotel restaurants also prepared and delivered food to shelters, volunteer centers, and for the territorial defense forces.
Museums have played a role in preserving Ukrainian history and culture. According to Lebed, those further away from the fighting “started helping museums in the frontline areas. Museums were forced to respond quickly to the potential threat and began to preserve valuable exhibits by hiding them in collections and transporting them away.”
As its hotels are medical resorts, the Edem Family Hotel Group uses its facilities to help soldiers who have been wounded in battle. After they’re released from the hospital, some are taken to Edem’s Lviv property to continue their physical and mental rehabilitation.
Through its Edem Golf Club, it developed a program partnering golf pros with doctors to work with injured soldiers. It also offers yoga and other rehabilitation programs as prescribed by medical personnel on staff.
The war is even more personal for some working in hospitality. Many have lost homes, jobs and family members.
When speaking about some team members, Edem CEO Voloshyn becomes visibly emotional. “We lost one waiter from the restaurant. He was a soldier, and he was killed there. And we have one guy [from the food and beverage department] who is missing. He was a soldier as well.”
He adds: “With all our guys that are in the war, we keep very strong connections. We write them, we send them messages, congratulate them on video, buy them things they need, and communicate with their families.”
Though circumstances are far from conducive to growing the tourism industry, the Lviv Tourism Office says it’s doing its best to find new markets, bolster the industry and help Ukrainians celebrate their country.
Every September, Ukraine celebrates Tourism Day.
Lebed says the appropriateness of marking the occasion was debated, but eventually the decision was taken to invite cultural representatives from cities under Russian military occupation to Lviv to talk about culture, traditions and cuisine.
“And it was a fantastic idea! All of Ukraine gathered in one place. We heard the Sea of Azov sounds, tasted Crimean baklava, and learned how to dress up a Kharkiv-style headscarf. It was a fantastic day! We managed to travel around Ukraine while staying in Lviv.”
Looking toward the future, the Ukrainian tourism industry has high hopes. Once flights are operating, tourism insiders expect business, military, and construction travelers to arrive first.
When leisure travelers return, there will certainly be a substantial amount of dark tourism, generally defined as visiting locations of tragedies such as war, genocide, or other tragic events. Those working in tourism in Ukraine accept this.
Voloshyn compares it to Babyn Yar, a memorial in Kyiv marking the location of the largest massacre by the Nazis in what is now Ukraine. “This is what these places should become. A place that’s not to be forgotten and to be an example to never do it again.”
Many in the industry believe curiosity will lead people to visit, as they now know some of the cities and geography of the country. Ukrainians say they’re looking forward to the day that they can show off their beautiful nature areas in the Carpathian mountains, their tasty gastronomy, and the culture that they’ve fought so hard to preserve.