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War has decimated tourism in Ukraine, but people are still determined to travel

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The Carpathian Mountains are a wildly popular vacation destination for Ukrainians. Located in the far western part of the country, the vast mountain chain offers visitors the quiet of nature and stunning views. And as NPR's Ashley Westerman reports from a mountain resort town there, some people are still determined to take a break, even as Russia's invasion has decimated Ukraine's tourism industry as a whole.

ASHLEY WESTERMAN, BYLINE: We're at the Lviv train station. Where are we getting ready to go?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We have a train to Uzhhorod, but we're going to drop off before that.

WESTERMAN: My husband booked us a little getaway to Slavske, a tiny tourism town in the Carpathian Mountains, only about two hours from Lviv by train.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN STATION SPEAKER ANNOUNCEMENT)

WESTERMAN: And honestly, as the train pulled out of the station, I was thinking it might actually be a pretty quiet trip. Russia's invasion has brought Ukraine's tourism sector to a standstill. And indeed, our first hours in Slavske were very quiet. Well, except...

(SOUNDBITE OF AIR RAID SIRENS)

WESTERMAN: ...Air raid sirens rang out a handful of times. It was Ukraine's Independence Day, so the country was on high alert.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOUDSPEAKER ANNOUNCEMENT)

WESTERMAN: The sirens didn't seem to bother the other guests at our hotel, which was booked solid the whole time we were there. But that appears to have been a blip. Katerina Minich, the manager, told me via telegram that the number of guests has been down some 60% this year compared to last, and they're projected to make 70- to 80% less money. She says other hotels in the area have the same story.

A few kilometers away in a cafe atop Zakhar Berkut Mountain, I asked the young woman behind the counter, Christina Marischuk, the same question.

What's the comparison in people who have come here last year to this year, would you say?

CHRISTINA MARISCHUK: (Non-English language spoken).

WESTERMAN: She says there were way more people last year.

Can you guess how many?

MARISCHUK: (Non-English language spoken).

WESTERMAN: There's around 50% less, Marischuk says, but she's not completely sure.

Mariana Oleskiv heads Ukraine's State Agency for Tourism Development.

MARIANA OLESKIV: A lot of people in Ukraine, they still don't feel it's OK to go on vacation or to travel.

WESTERMAN: She says her agency has found that some people feel guilty knowing that many of their fellow countrymen are still displaced or sleeping in ditches fighting Russians. Tour operators across Ukraine have reported occupancy being down up to 50% this summer, and that's in the safe areas of the country.

OLESKIV: When we talk about south of the country, of course, tourism have stopped there completely.

WESTERMAN: Ukraine's tourism sector last year was just starting to recover from the pandemic, she says. Now they'll have to start again, and they plan to, immediately, with a new campaign called Get Inspired by Ukraine, which aims to tell Ukrainians they have a right to take a rest.

OLESKIV: At some point we need to stop and, you know, just take a breath and maybe don't be so much involved in the news.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR PASSING)

WESTERMAN: Back in Slavske, Nataliia Baliuk and I struggle onto one of the Soviet-era chairlifts that takes riders up the mountain.

Gosh.

NATALIIA BALIUK: Oh, my gosh (laughter).

WESTERMAN: The 35 year old from Kyiv is on a getaway with friends. I asked, how does it feel, taking a break while her country is at war?

BALIUK: I feel just OK because I think that in order to be more effective, you have to relax sometimes. Otherwise, you will just not be able to do anything, and then you will not serve this country.

WESTERMAN: As we rode along, the chairs we passed were mostly full of Ukrainians, who came here for fresh air, beautiful scenery and, likely, to forget about reality, even for just a short while. Ashley Westerman, NPR News, Slavske, Ukraine.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ashley Westerman
Ashley Westerman is a producer who occasionally directs the show. Since joining the staff in June 2015, she has produced a variety of stories including a coal mine closing near her hometown, the 2016 Republican National Convention, and the Rohingya refugee crisis in southern Bangladesh. She is also an occasional reporter for Morning Edition, and NPR.org, where she has contributed reports on both domestic and international news.