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How the Ukraine invasion flattened Eastern European tourism

(CNN) — When frequent flier Julie booked a clutch of trips to Warsaw last year, she was expecting to spend her weekends in the Polish capital sightseeing, strolling around its parks, and eating pierogi.

But by the time the date of the first trip — June 2022 — rolled around, people around her weren’t so sure she should be going.

“My mum and a couple of friends said, ‘Warsaw’s quite close to Ukraine, aren’t you worried?'” she says.

She wasn’t. “I had no hesitation,” she says.

Julie — who preferred not to give her full name — has now visited Warsaw four times in six weeks, and has fallen for the city.

“It’s a fascinating place with so much history,” she says.

“The Old Town was rebuilt after the war and it’s beautiful. It has lovely parks, the weather’s good in summer — it’s a fabulous place, and the people are very friendly. I’m going back tomorrow — I don’t think there’s any legitimate concerns at all.”

Sadly, not every potential traveler feels the same way as her. Not only does Poland share a border with Ukraine, but pictures of refugees crossing the border seem to be increasing the proximity in people’s minds, to devastating effect for its travel industry.

At the end of March, Poland’s deputy minister for sport and tourism, Andrzej Gut-Mostowy, told media that cancelations from foreign visitors were up between 30% and 40%. His department did not respond to a request for comment.

European airline Jet2 even suspended flights to Poland in March. They will start up again in September — just too late for the summer vacation crowd.

It’s a trend that can be seen across the whole of Eastern Europe. Tour operator Last Night of Freedom, which arranges bachelor and bachelorette parties across Europe has seen bookings to Poland’s Krakow collapse by 60% for summer 2022.

“I think when the invasion started, people were hearing about bombs close to the border, and now they have that image in their head,” says founder Matt Mavir.

“But you should write that off. If Russia started bombing NATO countries, you going to Poland would be the least of your worries.”

You might hear Ukrainian spoken in Warsaw -- if you knew the difference with Polish.

You might hear Ukrainian spoken in Warsaw — if you knew the difference with Polish.

Artur Bogacki/iStockphoto/Getty Images

Personal safety isn’t the only reason people are staying away.

“People are saying they don’t want to go somewhere and be seen to be having fun in a place where they perceive there to be a lot of refugees.

“Someone lost their home and you’re there in matching t-shirts, drinking beer — there’s a juxtaposition that doesn’t sit right.”

Brit Nicola Trup, who visited family in Warsaw in July, says that this image of ugly tourists larking around as refugees watch on simply isn’t true.

“It did perhaps seem a little quieter than usual in terms of international tourists, and I definitely noticed more Ukrainian being spoken.” Although, as she points out, if you don’t speak Polish or Ukrainian, you wouldn’t be able to tell.

Giulia Mulè, a blogger in Wrocław, agrees.

“Ukrainians have been in Poland forever — they’re neighboring countries,” she says.

“In March and April there were a lot of initiatives and centers giving out donations. If you knew where they were you’d see queues of mothers and kids at certain times of day. It was sad, but also nice to see a lot of places were helping. And it’s not like it would affect your holiday. The railway stations were set up as refugee points, but it’s not like that now.”

As for safety worries, Mule says: “If you think about it rationally, there’s absolutely no risk.”

A region-wide crisis

People are afraid of having fun in front of refugees in cities like Warsaw.

People are afraid of having fun in front of refugees in cities like Warsaw.

Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images

It’s not just Poland, either. Last Night of Freedom says that its bookings to Budapest in Hungary have fallen by 45% and to Riga, Latvia, by 39%.

The Hungarian Tourism Agency’s figures show a 37% drop to the country in the first six months of 2022, compared to 2019. Americans are down 65%. It says numbers are rising, and it hopes to see the end of the year just 10% down.

Slovakia, which shares a border with western Ukraine, has seen foreign visitor numbers plummet by 49% compared to 2019, according to figures from its tourist board for January to May. “It’s hard to say how many didn’t visit because of the fear of the pandemic and how many are worried about conflict in Ukraine,” said a spokesperson. Capital Bratislava sits on the border with Austria, an hour from Vienna — and 16 hours from Kiev. Yet the shared border is enough to scare people off.

The situation is even affecting countries that do not share a border with Ukraine. Liina Maria Lepik, director of the Estonian Tourist Board, says that half of the 350 cruise ships scheduled to visit Tallinn in 2022 have been canceled “as a direct effect of the war” — because they can no longer stop at the prime Baltic cruise destination, St. Petersburg.

It’s not all dire news. “We have heard about the impact of the war as a reason for canceling group trips, but we have not seen the direct impact of the war in tourism statistics,” says Lepik. “Visitor numbers have been gradually improving every month” — though she adds that they are not near pre-pandemic levels yet.

‘It will never be this cheap’

Krakow hoteliers lost 80% of group bookings in three days.

Krakow hoteliers lost 80% of group bookings in three days.

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Not everyone is so lucky. In January, Jacek Legendziewicz was hoping 2022 would be the year his Krakow-based hospitality company, Jordan Group, recovered from the pandemic. But then came the invasion — and they lost 80% of group bookings in three days.

“There was a need to immediately accept refugees from Ukraine, and this partially filled the hotel,” he says.

“To function, however, we needed normal tourists.”

Even now, although Poland’s tourist board’s figures say visitor numbers are increasing, Legendziewicz — who is also the deputy director of the Chamber of Hotels in Małopolska province — is still having problems. Only his conference guests are continuing normally, while foreign visitor numbers “very slowly growing.” Foreign guests are down 60%. “The result is three times worse than in 2019,” he says.

“I keep hearing that Poland, Krakow are too close to the war.” He is planning a new slogan: “There never was, and there never will be as cheap as now.”

As Matt Mavir says, “By staying away, it’s hurting these places more than the actual war itself. If people could get behind [Poland] and visit, it’d help across the border, too.” His company is donating 10% of the profits of any trip to Poland to refugee charities on the ground.

The regional winners

Visitors to Budapest and Hungary are down, too.

Visitors to Budapest and Hungary are down, too.

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Interestingly, two countries in the region are seeing an increase of tourists. Moldova, which borders Ukraine, saw more foreign visitors in the first quarter of 2022 than pre-pandemic, going from 31,000 non-resident tourists in 2019 to 36,100 in 2022.

Meanwhile Lithuania — which borders Russian allies Belarus and the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad Oblast — says that by June, visitor numbers were at 88% of 2019 levels. Those “visitors” include Ukrainians fleeing the conflict, but numbers from Latvia, UK and the United States are all up.

Even Poland, with its 25% drop in overall tourism from February to May 2022, saw a 20% increase in US visitors. A spokesperson for the Polish Tourist Board told CNN that Poland’s abolition of masks, isolation and quarantine rules in March “should be taken into account.”

A ‘geopolitical zombie’

People bypassing Poznan are

People bypassing Poznan are “not considering the geography.”

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Although Poland’s American numbers are looking good, the situation overall is not so rosy.

“The situation has become very unstable and unpredictable,” says Wojtek Mania, from the Poznań Tourism Organisation.

“It’s really frustrating and infuriating that politics is influencing tourism, which helps people gather together.”

The city doesn’t have figures for 2022 yet, but Mania says that “the influence of war is very intense.” And while the situation for independent travelers isn’t as bad, group travel has fallen off a cliff.

As the invasion started, Scandinavian countries and Spain canceled bookings, he said. Then the UK joined them, and tour operators canceled trips “in really big numbers.”

He says, people are “not considering the geography” and are lumping an entire region together. In fact, he says, the idea of “Eastern Europe” and “Western Europe” is a throwback to Soviet times — and those concepts are so entrenched in the public consciousness that it’s overruling simple geography, and facts.

“We are over 30 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union and suddenly it’s like a geopolitical zombie that’s influencing industries like tourism in central-eastern Europe,” he explains.

“The war started by Russia has affected a whole region and continent.”

Dorota Wojciechowska, director of the Poland Tourism Board in London, points out that cities such as “Krakow, Gdansk, Wrocław, Poznań and Warsaw… are all located hundreds of miles away from the border with Ukraine.

“The distance between Krakow and Kyiv is like the distance between London and Madrid.” Individual travelers from the UK are starting to return, she says.

The aim, says Mania, is to “focus on informing people we are safe. That we are not in a state of war, we’re not on the front line, and you don’t have crowds of refugees camping on old town squares. Nothing is going on on the streets.”

The problem? “Tourism is based on emotions, and rational arguments are not reaching people because they have these feelings, so it’s difficult to get through.”

The lure of the bucket list

There is a

There is a “big drop-off” in visitor numbers to Romania.

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There might be another factor bringing down numbers — that after two years of the pandemic, the “revenge travel” movement is seeing people book bucket list trips, meaning that prime destinations are buckling under pressure while lesser known places are overlooked.
That’s one theory of Tom Smith, regional general manager for Europe at Intrepid Travel. Its bestselling trips this year are a Danube cycle tour and Best of Central Europe, taking in Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia and Poland. In 2019, they were Russia, and a long trip around Moldova, Ukraine and Romania.

“This is more about post-pandemic trends rather than the war,” he says. “People have spent months thinking about where they’ve always wanted to visit so it’s not surprising that they are opting for trips that take in the ‘big hitters’ of Central and Eastern Europe.”

Having said that, Smith reckons that Poland and Romania have seen an irrefutable drop related to the invasion.

“I traveled to Romania recently and although there were some tourists, locals told me that they’ve seen a big drop-off in tourism, especially around the Danube Delta area, closest to Ukraine.”

He adds: “When the invasion first happened there was nervousness about traveling to Eastern Europe in general. Now people have seen that the war is contained to Ukraine, they’re feeling more confident. But when it comes to the countries bordering Ukraine, there is still some reticence.

“Unfortunately this is at a time when local people need tourism more than ever, as they recover from the pandemic. People might not be sure if it’s appropriate to visit — but by traveling to those countries, you are supporting their efforts to help Ukrainian refugees.”

Go now to help out — and enjoy

Authorities in Poznan want people to realize it's safe to visit.

Authorities in Poznan want people to realize it’s safe to visit.

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What’s more, these are beautiful places to visit in their own right, adds Mulè.

“Late summer, early fall is one of the best times to go. It’s really warm, sunny but not too hot. There are mountains, seaside, cities… and although prices are going up, if you’re paid in pounds or dollars, you’re going to go out for a really good meal and laugh when the check comes.”

And if you’ve been wondering what you can do to help Ukraine, she says, visiting these countries would be a good start.

“In Poland we’ve welcomed millions of refugees. It’s a big increase in the number of people accessing Polish services. So the more you support Poland, the more you’re supporting Ukraine.”

In Poznań, Mania agrees.

“We had a big Ukrainian minority before the war, and it’s bigger now. Lots work in hospitality, hotels, restaurants — if you’d like to support refugees, support them by coming to Poland, and look for Ukrainian restaurants, or places where they work.

“That way you can support tourism and also refugees, trying to build their new lives.”

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