YALTA, Crimea (Reuters) – In years past, Siberian Viktor Motorin could hop on a plane and arrive in Crimea just four hours later to relax at his holiday apartment. Now he must fly first to Moscow and then spend a day and a half on the train.
The war in Ukraine, now 18 months old, is making it harder for many Russians to reach their favourite summer haunts in the Black Sea region of Crimea, which Moscow seized and annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
And safety is a factor for some, especially after two major Ukrainian attacks since last October on the 19 km (12 mile) Crimean Bridge that links Russia by road and rail to the peninsula.
But after weighing up such concerns, Motorin, from the city of Khanty-Mansiysk in western Siberia, said he decided that making his annual trip was still a risk well worth taking.
“We calculated that it was reasonably safe, especially when my colleagues had already come here in June, early July. They said it was all calm here with no problems on the Crimea Bridge. The goods, the prices, everything is like before,” he said.
Russians have been drawn to the lush scenery and rocky coastline of Crimea since tsarist times, but now the choice of where to go on holiday is complicated by several factors relating to the war.
Sanctions have severed flights to the West, and the weakness of Russia’s rouble currency has raised the cost of trips to other popular destinations, such as Turkey and Thailand.
Commercial airspace over Crimea has been closed since Russia launched what it calls its “special military operation” in Ukraine in February 2022, meaning visitors must arrive either by car or rail. Arduous journeys are often compounded by long queues at the bridge.
“We came by train: it took two days and four hours – very long this year because we were afraid to take the car. It’s the fifth year we’ve come here on holiday,” said Olga Morskova from Rybinsk, north of Moscow, some 1,370 km (850 miles) from Crimea.
Alexei Volkov, president of the National Union of Hospitality Industries, said in an interview that tourist numbers in Crimea were expected to be down 20-30% this year to between 6 and 6.5 million people.
“What’s special about this year is the number of difficulties caused by the special military operation and new challenges for the hospitality industry and local residents when (emergency) situations have happened more often,” he said.
“It is the most difficult season for the past nine years that we have been a part of Russia,” he added, referring to the 2014 annexation which is regarded as illegal by most countries and which Ukraine has vowed to reverse.
Other Russian Black Sea resorts, at less risk of attacks, have seen increased demand. Volkov said hotel occupancy in Sochi was at 100%, and even the port city of Novorossiysk had seen a 6% uptick in visitors.
Fewer visitors to Crimea have meant more for Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea and Dagestan in Russia’s north Caucasus region, he said.
For one Russian couple, the choice of Crimea as a holiday destination proved fatal. The man and woman were both killed, and their 14-year-old daughter was wounded, when their car was caught in an explosion when they crossed the bridge on July 17, travelling at night to avoid traffic jams.
The head of Ukraine’s SBU security service, Vasyl Maliuk, later claimed responsibility for the attack, and a previous one that caused severe damage to the bridge last October.
Last week Russia’s defence ministry said its forces had destroyed 42 Ukraine-launched drones over Crimea in a single day. Its Russian-appointed governor said two more were downed on Monday.
Yet despite the proximity of the war, some Russians interviewed by Reuters were keen to play down the dangers, or dismiss them entirely.
“No, absolutely no fears. We went without thinking twice, not afraid of anything; everything is good,” said Alexander Semashko from Stavropol in southern Russia.
“The goal of our trip is, of course, to have a rest, and support Russian tour operators, hoteliers, and Russian tourism, no doubt.”
Sergei Lenkov, from Vologda north of Moscow, said he had confidence in Russia’s air defence systems.
“There are no risks really. The sky is protected. So there isn’t anything to get upset about,” he said.
(Reporting by Reuters; Writing by Mark Trevelyan and Alexander Marrow; Editing by Gareth Jones and Sharon Singleton)