Ukraine: Safe to travel?

ANDREA SACHS
Last updated 08:19 28/07/2014

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Pro-Russia rebels. A downed passenger airplane. Surface-to-air missiles. A ruthless leader. The list reads like a nail-biting Le Carre spy novel. But no, it's just another week in Ukraine.

Despite the gripping incidents of the past 10 days, experts are not warning travellers to stay away from the country.

Instead, it's Ukraine Ho!

"The conflict is in eastern Ukraine, off the tourist track," said Ed Daly, director of watch operations for iJET International, a risk-assessment company. "It's heavy Cossack territory, industrial with no tourist infrastructure."

The popular tourist areas - Kiev and points due west, as well as Russia - are said to be safe. Tour operators continue to run trips to this region with confidence.

"These countries are still open for tourism," said Douglas Grimes, who owns MIR, a tour company that specialises in Russia, Ukraine and former Soviet republics.

This spring, the 28-year-old company suspended trips to Kiev to avoid the heavy protests roiling the capital, but it has since restored its small-group and customised tours.

The summer voyages have "all gone smoothly," Grimes said. But "the biggest shame is Crimea. We haven't had anyone go there."

Grimes said that he is waiting to see how events in that region shake out and will probably send a representative down on an exploratory mission.

Viking River Cruises backed out of Crimea in the spring because of heightened tensions, State Department warnings and uncertainty over Russian visa requirements.

The cruise line cancelled its Footsteps of the Cossacks sojourn, which sailed between Kiev and Odessa, and replaced it with a 12-day itinerary between Bucharest, Romania, and the Black Sea.

Other cruise lines, including Windstar, Oceania, Costa, Regent Seven Seas and Azamara, have made similar port substitutions and route alterations.

(In another volatile zone, Costa Cruises announced plans to modify itineraries that include stops in Israel. Fall cruises on Costa Pacifica will replace Ashdod and Haifa with Istanbul and Volos, Greece; the September 5 cruise on Costa Deliziosa will drop two Israeli ports and add Istanbul and Greece's Volos and Heraklion.)

One sector of the travel industry is largely bypassing eastern Ukraine altogether, at least from above: airlines. After the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, many carriers started diverting routes to safer airspace.

"Some airlines are avoiding Ukraine entirely," Daly said. "It's minimally disruptive. They can make up time in the air."

One carrier - Emirates - has suspended service to Kiev. Like the rest of the world, it is monitoring the situation down below.

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