YALTA, CRIMEA — At the czar’s summer palace, where the 1945 Yalta Conference was held, curators anticipating waves of Russian tourists are preparing a new art exhibit in the solarium.
With the smell of fresh paint lingering in the air at every hotel, prices are being slashed for package tours from Russia, and the Crimean Tourism Ministry is encouraging residents to tell their relatives and friends that everything is calm in Crimea.
The referendum that led to Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula has dealt a wild card to the local economy, which depends on tourism as its backbone. A quarter of Crimean workers owe their jobs to the spending of 6.2 million visitors. Tourist season starts in one month and kicks into high gear from June to August.
Nowhere is tourism more crucial than in Yalta, a town of 80,000 nestled in a stunning location at the foot of the soaring Crimean Mountains, its pebbly beaches rimming the Black Sea. With an abundance of pines, palm and cypress trees, it looks like Nevada butting up against the Mediterranean.
“Tourism in Yalta is everything,” said Andrei Kolomitsev, the head of Yalta’s tourism office.
Although properties cannot be sold until they are re-registered under Russian law, dozens of Russians and Ukrainians have been calling Yalta Real Estate each day seeking dachas and apartments for investment purchases, said owner Oleg Kuznetsov, pulling out his iPhone to prove it by showing the country codes on his incoming-call log.
Kuznetsov rushed through the possibilities, from boom to bust, with little in between.
“If Ukraine keeps the border open, we’ll have double the number of tourists,” he predicted, sitting in his office lobby while three agents sat quietly at their desks, the phone never ringing once in a half-hour time span. “But Kiev could urge Ukrainians to boycott the season to prove that after the referendum, everything went bad.
“But Russians have more money to spend. And of course, there are 42 million Ukrainians, while Russia has more than 140 million. We’re just waiting to see how things evolve.”
Once the summer playground of Russian royalty and other notables, Yalta became a workers’ paradise when the Soviet Union built sanatoriums, campgrounds and mammoth hotels, and subsidized cheap vacations for factory workers and their families. But those subsidized vacations were severely curtailed when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
For the past two decades, Yalta has struggled in its appeals to Ukrainians, who have made up more than half of the tourism traffic. But the per capita income in Ukraine is less than a third of what it is in Russia, according to World Bank figures. Many travel here on a $1.50 ticket on a 54-mile trolley bus journey billed as the longest in the world, sharing seats with farmers carrying small tractor tires, housewives toting market bags, university students chatting on cellphones and men reeking of alcohol.
The promenade along Lenin’s Quay is lined with stores selling expensive clothing with designer names but of uncertain origin, elegant cafes with outdoor tables and hotels such as the Villa Sofa, a 19-room boutique lodging owned by a famous Ukrainian pop singer where the designer-decorated rooms start at $300 and run to $1,500. Outside its doors are bronze statues of author Anton Chekhov, who had a home in Yalta, and a character from his short story “The Lady With the Dog.”
But just a few feet away, near a small square where musicians with old violins and clarinets play American classics from the Rat Pack era, there is a small stand where $5 can buy a few minutes on air guns converted from Russian AK-47s, Ukrainian Makarov pistols, Austrian Glocks and American Colts.
“This is going to be a better season,” said Vladimir Manhura, manager of a basement crocodilarium, where 100 of the reptiles can be viewed for a little more than $1.
“Or similar,” he added. “Last season wasn’t so good.”
On Roosevelt Street, at a wine store called the Best Wines of Crimea, the sales clerk said about half the clientele are tourists.
“At the beginning of every season, there’s always a lot of apprehension,” said the clerk, Inna. “But this year, there’s a bit more because of recent events.”
Those recent events have made it more difficult to be a tourist in Crimea. Most hotels do not accept credit cards, so bills must be paid in cash. ATM withdrawals are limited to $50, and the card of anyone who is not a customer is ejected with a notice saying the transaction cannot be processed “for technical reasons.”
With the summer season approaching, Crimean officials are planning to aggressively court tourists.
Kolomitsev, of the city’s tourism office, said he attended a meeting with Russian and Crimean government officials March 14, two days before the referendum in which voters overwhelmingly approved splitting from Ukraine to join Russia.
He said the Russian government plans to add flights to Crimea’s sole civilian airport in Simferopol, the capital, and cut air fares in half. Plans are afoot to build ferries so Russians can drive and then cross to Crimea from the Russian mainland until a bridge is built across the Kerch Strait, he said.
“Crimea will be open for everyone,” Kolomitsev said. “We just hope Ukraine’s leaders will allow people to come. They have no reason to be afraid.”
That sentiment was echoed by two Ukrainian women, Elena and Halina, who gave only their first names and were touring the 52-room Livadia Palace, where the last czar, Nicholas II, summered with his family before they were massacred in 1918, after the Bolshevik Revolution.
“If you’re scared of everything, you may as well stay home,” said Elena, who lives in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk. “We came by train two days ago and had no problems. There’s sun and sea here. There’s no reason to be afraid.”
Artem Cernov, tourism manager for the palace, said the site is already Yalta’s top attraction for Russian tourists. The $8.50 ticket includes a guided tour with an emphasis on the Yalta Conference. Life-size wax figures of conference participants Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill sit in the entrance. The guide provides many details of meetings between Roosevelt and Stalin, while Churchill’s role in her telling is minimized to his late arrival and his consumption of 29 cigars in eight days.
The tour also includes a walk through the second-floor living quarters of the Romanov family, though most of the furnishings are reproductions because the original decorations were looted after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and sold to collectors, the guide said.
Livadia Palace got 3 million tourists last year, including 80,000 who were passengers on cruise ships that stopped in Yalta’s harbor.
“We hope it’s not going to be worse this summer,” Chernov said. “We had a huge fall in visitors after the Soviet Union collapsed, and we worked hard to get them back. Now, everything is very calm. We’re ready to host everyone, regardless of nationality. Tourism is not politics.”