Yalta - A few months ago, 2014 looked like it might shape up as a decent year for Crimean tour operator Gulzade Odamanova, who even had a few dozen overseas bookings on her calendar from Germans, Poles and the occasional Italian.
But after the picturesque Black Sea peninsula was seized by Russian troops this month, all of the foreigners cancelled.
“We were told that everything was cancelled and ... that we should not expect new bookings soon,” Odamanova, an ethnic Tatar, said with a sorrowful face.
Crimea, with its craggy hills, jagged coast and mild climate, has been the Russian empire's answer to the Mediterranean Riviera since the 19th century.
In Soviet days, its hotels and sanatoria became prized holiday accommodations for workers and their families, sent to the seaside for state-funded rest.
Today, apart from the Russian military base at Sevastopol, tourism is still Crimea's main industry. According to official data, about 70 000 of the peninsula's 2 million people are directly employed in tourism, but some 60 percent of its population depends on it for at least part of their income.
But of the 6 million to 8 million tourists who come in a year, more than 60 percent come from Ukraine, from which Crimea has just seceded, and only a quarter from Russia, the country it has voted to join. Many of the Ukrainian tourists were sent on holidays paid for with state funds for public sector workers, which Kiev says it will stop spending in Crimea.
Now that Moscow has seized the territory and annexed it, some locals hope to attract a bigger market of Russian tourists, but that will be a harder task.
Russians arrive by air rather than train, so Crimea will now have to compete with further flung destinations like Bulgaria, Turkey, Egypt, Greece or even Thailand, as well as Russia's own new $50-billion Black Sea Olympic resort in Sochi.
Igor Kotlyar, Crimea's Deputy Tourism Minister, said bookings for Ukrainian state-financed visits are already a third lower than a year ago. Ukraine says it will halt the flow of its state holiday funds to Crimea as of April.
“April and May will be the most critical months before Russian programmes start making up for the lost flows,” Kotlyar said. “Private business also makes up a large part of the industry and I would expect significant cuts here.”
LADY WITH LAPDOG
Crimea was a favourite destination for the Russian nobility, including last tsar Nicholas II who built the elegant Livadia Palace on the Black Sea coast. In 1945, the palace hosted the Yalta Conference where Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill carved up post-war Europe.
Crimean holidays feature in the work of Russia's great writers, including Anton Chekhov, whose best-loved story, “Lady With Lapdog”, tells of fin de siecle adultery between a middle aged banker and a bureaucrat's wife who meet during languid evenings under the cypresses of the Yalta seafront promenade.
But these days, many of the hotels are well worn, with few of the modern conveniences Russian tourists can find at other easily reached destinations on the Black Sea or Mediterranean.
The pro-Russian Crimean government which took power a month ago after armed men seized the regional parliament says it will nationalise 140 of the 800 registered spas, sanatoriums and hotels on the peninsula.
On a sunny day this week, guests strolled on a terrace above the beach at the Primorsky Park Spa and Hotel, a white-facaded building in replica 1930s-style architecture, nestled in Yalta's oldest park. Marketing manager Alina Danilova was optimistic that relatively high-end hotels like hers would come out ahead.
“This hotel hosts mainly middle and upper-class customers who are arriving by air anyway,” she said. “We expect no changes in higher-end hotels and we are also expecting that Russians would be now bound for Crimea in bigger numbers as this is their country again.”
But for the many Crimeans who scrape a living at the lower end of tourism, the future cut off from Ukraine looks bleak.
“I do not know who will come now ... many people who had previously stayed at my place said they will now go elsewhere,” said Yevdokiya, a middle-aged woman who rents out an apartment to tourists.
Murad Ametov, a taxi driver who mainly makes money ferrying tourists from Simferopol's railway station to coastal resorts, was despondent: “Previously I was driving mainly Ukrainians, now they will not come.”
During the past month of crisis, when armed pro-Moscow militiamen and Russian soldiers seized the streets, flights were halted from the rest of Ukraine and international destinations like Turkey, although planes have continued to land from Moscow.
Most tourists arrive in Crimea by rail across the isthmus that connects it to mainland Ukraine. The trains are still running, but even if Ukrainian tourists still want to come, their route is bound to get more complicated because they will now cross a disputed border.
Moscow has promised to build a bridge across the Kerch straight that separates Crimea from a peninsula of southern Russia, but that would be years away at the soonest and it is hardly clear large numbers of tourists are waiting to cross.
Kotlyar said Crimea should now re-think its profile to better match demand from Russia.
“A little pause would be good for us,” he said. “For political reasons of course we need to show today that Crimea was worth it and get 10 million people to come here.” - Reuters