The initiatives by authorities in Croatia, Greece and Israel are expected to drive a new spurt in holidays abroad. With airlines rushing to launch flights to these new hot destinations, operators hope for a quick return to the pre-crisis market.
“The main reason is visa liberalization,” said Vyacheslav Burdyukov, general director of Wind Rose travel company.
As the crisis hit, incomes dropped and the hryvnia plunged, meaning Ukrainians had less money to spend on foreign holidays, and what they had didn’t go as far. In the last two years, tour operators report a drop in clients of 30 to 40 percent.
But the crisis also served as a spur for countries such as Croatia to open up their borders to try to attract more tourists and boost their struggling economies. Last year, the number of Ukrainian tourists to Croatia jumped to 37,000 from 31,000 in 2008, an 18 percent rise, after the need for a visa was waived during the summer months. The visa regime has again been cancelled from April 1 to Oct. 31 this year.
Greece was one of the European Union countries worst hit by the crisis, and is making a drive to attract tourists. Travel companies say they have an agreement with the embassy in Kyiv to ease applications for those who buy packages. The Greek embassy was unavailable for comment.
With hoteliers also expected to keep their prices low in order to boost visitors, operators are placing bets on Greece as a big hit this summer.
“Realizing that the number of tourists from Europe will drop, Greek hotels are eyeing up the [Ukrainian] market and offer a new balance of price and value,” said Arkadiy Maslov, commercial director of Tez Tour Ukraine, one of the largest tour operators on the Ukrainian market.
Turkey and Egypt are traditional favorites for tourists given their close location, affordability and the fact that a visa can be purchased on arrival. Croatia and Greece are expected to gain in popularity as they share a similar climate, miles of stunning coastline and reasonable prices.
According to various estimates of market players, the price for a seven-day vacation to Greece will range from 400 to 1,000 euros, depending on the month.
Airlines have also spotted the opportunities of these new destinations, starting up commercial and charter flights and making them even more attractive to holidaymakers.
“Before, the only way to get [to Croatia] was by bus. With several airlines on market, this will change,” said Burdyukov from Wind Rose, which already offers flights.
Ukraine International Airlines is set to begin regular flights to three Croatian towns from May.
“There will be a total of three or four air carriers to Croatia, which will make flights available for $250-350 for a round trip,” said Burdyukov.
Another country set for visa liberalization and an increase in airlines is Israel. The country has already significantly liberalized its visa requirements and is expected to cancel it by autumn 2010, when the travel season starts there.
With most people’s budgets still tight, planning your own trip is an increasingly popular, cheap way to travel. But Ukrainians are often reluctant to plan their own trips because of the difficulty of obtaining an EU visa, distrust in online booking and a lack of English.
Some companies offer special courses in arranging a trip to Europe, applying for a Schengen visa or even offer to organize a low-cost trip for you.
“My friends in Europe do not understand what I charge for,” said Orest Bilous, the founder of MakeMyTrip.com.ua, which sells ready-made, low-cost tours and personally tailored trips to destinations around the globe.
The company arranges trips using the web sites of nearly 30 low-cost airlines and hundreds of booking pages, available to everyone for free but unfamiliar to most, to offer discounts.
The crisis has also changed the shape of the travel industry in other ways. With many smaller travel agencies going out of business, the sector has consolidated and witnessed the arrival of several foreign tour operators.
European travel operator TUI Group this year purchased Kyiv travel agency Voyage-Kyiv, which owns Halopom po Evropakh, or Around Europe at a Gallop, a network of 60 tour shops across Ukraine. Another example is the acquisition of mid-size local travel company MIBS Travel by Russian tour operator Yuzhny Krest.
TUI Ukraine marketing and sales director Taras Demura said the company’s major focus will not be on offering cheap breaks, but guaranteeing quality.
He believes the Ukrainian travel market is likely to grow rapidly, as only two percent of the population currently travels abroad, compared to 60 percent in Germany.
Demura said it’s a question as much of attitude as of money, something he expects to change. “Ukrainians would rather buy new clothes than spend money on vacations, unlike Germans. We expect that priorities will change in the future and the percentage of travelers will grow to 15 percent within the next five years,” he said.