Lviv (Ukraine) (AFP)
Saudi tourists ride in horse-drawn carriages, pose for portraits of street artists and play chess on benches with locals in Lviv, a Ukrainian city more accustomed to hosting European guests.
But with strict Covid-19 travel restrictions still in place across Europe, travelers from the Middle East – particularly Saudi Arabia – now rank among the top visitors to the former Soviet state.
This trend has given hope to the tourism industry in the country affected by the pandemic.
“We have to seize the opportunity,” says Bogdan Gets, a tour guide on a tourist train that transports tourists through the cobbled streets of central Lviv, a city in western Ukraine known for its Renaissance architecture.
For Gets and his colleagues on the “Chudo Tour” (Wonder Tour), the unexpected influx of tourists from the Middle East is a chance to recover from a series of bottlenecks that have put pressure on the struggling Ukrainian economy.
In the first half of 2021, the number of Saudi tourists alone visiting Ukraine skyrocketed to 14,000, from just 350 in the same period last year, according to the country’s national tourism agency.
This new cohort is attracted by a visa waiver scheme enacted last August and cheap direct flights.
In previous years, the city was mainly visited by Poles, Belarusians, Turks, Germans and British.
“The past year has put the tourism industry in extreme conditions,” the agency said, and “radically changed” the way tourists decide which countries to visit.
Before the pandemic, Asma, 32, a tourist from Saudi Arabia, traveled with her husband and two sons to various European destinations every year, but never considered Ukraine.
After exploring Lviv and the capital Kiev this summer, the family was pleasantly surprised.
“The bars, the food and the coffee, all things here in Ukraine are amazing,” Asma told AFP outside the iconic Lviv Opera House.
– The rain is “magic” –
Anna Nayda, the manager of the Kredens Cafe chain, admitted that the local tourism industry had encountered some initial difficulties when catering to their new customers.
“At the beginning, it was very difficult to find a common language,” she told AFP.
But now its cafes are printing menus in Arabic and replacing pork in their sandwiches to make sure they have halal options.
Several souvenir shops in the city have started making signs in Arabic while “Chudo Tour” has said they are translating their pre-recorded audio guides.
“It’s a push for change,” Nayda said, adding that during the pandemic, businesses were struggling to pay rent and wages.
“Of course, under these conditions, you think about how to survive. We decided to make changes and everything went well, ”she said.
Tourism in Ukraine is picking up, but the rise is slow.
After the number of tourists in 2020 was only a quarter of the level of the previous year in 2020, it increased by 9% in the first half of this year compared to the second half of last year.
The number of visitors to the Gulf – mainly from Saudi Arabia and Bahrain – has gradually increased throughout the summer, said Khrystyna Kaguy, head of the Reikartz hotel group.
Hassan, a 64-year-old businessman from Saudi Arabia, opted for a family vacation to Ukraine on the recommendation of a friend.
Compared to Germany or Switzerland, he described the country as “more energetic, more dynamic” and where the locals “are family oriented”.
“We will definitely be back,” he told AFP outside a cafe with his wife in Kiev.
For tourists coming from arid conditions, trees and rain are a big draw.
“Rooms that even slightly overlook the trees or the park are a big preference,” Kaguy told AFP.
Gets, meanwhile, said he had never seen an adult so happy to see the rain.
“It’s a pleasure for them. They say they came to Lviv on purpose, they are only interested in the rain. “
According to Asma, the rain is like “by magic”.
“It looks like heaven,” she said. ” We will return. “
© 2021 AFP