Ukraine Tourism Board Works On Despite Russian Troops

March 6, 2014

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It may seem a tough sell to lure tourists to a country partly occupied by Russian troops and which several countries have advised its nationals is not safe for travel, but Ukraine's tourist board is looking on the sunny side.

At the ITB travel fair in Berlin, Ukrainian officials are making the best of a tense situation by showing a huge photo of protesters in the capital Kiev, an image of change they hope will inspire visitors.

"I think it's our story at the moment - it's the sad side of our story but we're proud that Ukraine has these heroes and people who weren't scared to defend the interests of their country," Elena Ovcharenko, head of public relations and marketing for Kiev's tourism office, told Reuters news agency.

The picture is of protesters in Maidan, or Independence Square - the symbol of protests in which 80 people were killed two weeks ago in battles that led to the toppling of President Viktor Yanukovich and his government.

"These people show us it's possible to bring about change in our country and these changes are taking time at the moment," Ovcharenko said.

Russia sees things differently however, calling the new government illegitimate and reserving the right to dispatch troops if it considers its interests threatened. Russian media portray a country where ethnic Russians are threatened and fascist groupings set the tone.

In front of the photo bearing the slogan "Ukraine - it's all about u", visitors to the ITB tourism fair are invited to write their thoughts in a memorial book or pray by a candle flickering before a picture of some of the "Heroes of Maidan".

That is as close to events in Ukraine as several countries, including Britain, the United States and Australia, have suggested their nationals come.

The United States, for example, has warned US citizens to defer all non-essential travel to Ukraine, especially to the Crimean peninsula now effectively seized by Russian forces.

Ovcharenko said there was no longer any danger in Kiev and urged people to "get your own impression".

At the other end of Ukraine's display, a poster placed next to Russia's stands trumpets its western Carpathian Mountains as "a real tourist gem" and stresses that the former Soviet republic and its eastern neighbour are not one and the same.

"Ukraine is not Russia. Come and see the difference," reads the message set amongst photos of ornate churches with colourful roofs, men in traditional dress riding horses and a river winding through a lush green forest.

Last year, Ukraine backed away from a trade deal with the European Union under pressure from Moscow, sparking months of protests that toppled Yanukovich, but promotional material at the stands says Ukraine has been "part of EUROPE since 988".

Ribbons featuring the blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag alongside the European Union's blue-and-gold-stars flag are tied to posters and the north-western city of Kharkiv is promoted as "a European city which shares European ideas".

Ovcharenko said while some tourists had cancelled trips to Kiev due to the unrest, it had given others an incentive to visit the city and the Maidan, where for three months protesters manned barricades to bring down Yanukovich.

"People from Germany, Poland, Belgium and Norway are coming to show their solidarity with the Ukrainian people at this time," she said.