This travel agency wants tourists to visit Ukraine now

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(CNN) — Visiting Ukraine right now to experience what it’s like to live in the middle of a war, see its bombed cities, feel the danger and meet its fighters is probably not on anyone’s travel wish list. .

But six months after Russia invaded the country, unleashing a wave of death and destruction, an organization is inviting tourists to come.

The Visit Ukraine online platform. Today, last month, launched one-day guided tours of so-called ‘brave cities’ that defied and continue to resist Russian invaders, giving travelers a taste of how the country lives in the midst of conflict.

Despite international alerts warning against travel to Ukraine, the company says it has sold 150 tickets so far, while its website offering information on safe travel to and from Ukraine receives 1.5 million visits per month, up 50% from pre-invasion figures.

He says anyone signing up for tours can expect walks among bomb debris, crumbling buildings, cathedrals and stadiums, and burnt military equipment, along with the regular wail of raid sirens. air. Landmines are also a risk.

While it might seem like a macabre way to spend a vacation, Visit Ukraine founder and CEO Anton Taranenko told CNN Travel it’s not the same as the “dark tourism” that sees visitors flock to other sites of death, disaster and destruction around the world.

Taranenko says the tours are a chance for Ukraine to highlight the defiant spirit of its citizens and show the outside world that life goes on, even in times of war.

“Live your life no matter what”

Visit Ukraine.Today encourages foreign travelers to take a trip to Ukraine.

Visit Ukraine

“It’s not just about the bombs, what’s happening in Ukraine today is also about how people are learning to live with war, to help each other,” he says. “There is a real change, a new street spirit.

“Perhaps across from where a bomb recently went off you’ll see friends eating good traditional food in a reopened bistro.

“We are happy for a few moments, it’s not just the bad and sad things like you see on TV. Life goes on and there is hope that soon it will all be over.

“Kids grow up, we try to live life as much as possible no matter what.”

The US State Department currently has a “Level 4: Do Not Travel” warning against Ukraine due to the Russian invasion. He urges all US citizens to leave the country immediately and warns that, following the suspension of operations at his embassy in Kyiv, no consular assistance can be offered.

Similar alerts have been issued by other countries. The UK Foreign and Commonwealth and Development Office warns there is a ‘real risk to life’ from attacks on towns and regions.

Nevertheless, Taranenko urges people to visit. “If you want to see our cities destroyed and our brave people fighting, please come now,” he said.

But, he adds, visitors should be aware that nowhere in Ukraine is 100% safe, although having a guide will help mitigate the danger.

“We regularly check the situation so that we can monitor the different levels of security,” he says, pointing out that many Ukrainians have now returned to areas they originally fled, especially the capital Kyiv, due to the invasion.

“Ukraine is recovering, people are returning to the cities, municipalities are starting to rebuild, cities are recovering from the horrors and there are a million foreigners in the country. Kyiv is now the most visitable place and the safest,” says Taranenko.

Discovering the country, he adds, means looking into the eyes of Ukrainians whose lives have changed forever but who live in expectation of victory.

Visit Ukraine has been praised by the government for its work in supporting the war-affected country’s decimated tourist industry and for providing information to help citizens arrive and depart. But there is no official endorsement for his current drive to encourage visitors.

“It’s not a good time to visit, but once we win and the war is over, we will invite people to visit Ukraine,” said Mariana Oleskiv, president of the State Agency. for the development of tourism in Ukraine, to CNN.

“At the state level, we want Ukraine to be open for tourism, but for that we need more weapons, we need to win and stop the war. Our official position is to visit Ukraine when it will be safe to visit, maybe possible next year I hope.”

Oleskiv said domestic tourism had actually restarted in Ukraine, reaching up to 50% of pre-war levels despite the fighting, but it was too early and too risky for foreigners to come. She suggested that tours could be purchased in order to support the tourism industry.

“Like Rolling a Dice”

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Foreign governments have warned their citizens against visits.

Visit Ukraine

Although martial law has been introduced in Ukraine and air traffic has been suspended, Taranenko says foreign visitors can still enter and exit fairly easily overland, passing through checkpoints in the east of the country with Europe.

Although travel is possible, independent travel security experts warn against it.

Charlie McGrath, owner of Objective Travel Safety, a UK-based company that trains people for war zones, says even areas of Ukraine that appear safe can pose a real risk.

“I urge extreme caution due to ongoing random Russian attacks,” he told CNN. “Even though the far west of Ukraine is relatively safe and life seems to go on, the southeast is much more dangerous. It would be like rolling a dice.”

He says visitors would need reassurance about the protection they will be offered on tours and what will happen if they are injured or their guide is killed. There are also questions about local hospitals and resources that would be involved.

“I would recommend not doing it,” he adds.

According to Taranenko, regardless of the risks, there is an appetite to visit Ukraine. Of the 150 tickets sold so far, 15 have been for Americans, he said.

Tour groups will be limited to groups of 10. Participants will meet their guide at pick-up points and be prepared on how to act in a critical situation – for example, where to find shelter if the air raid sirens sound .

“Having a guide who knows the place and exactly which direction to take is a guarantee,” he says. “If you venture alone 10 meters to the left or 10 meters to the right, you risk finding yourself on a mine or a bomb.

“For example, in the Bucha area, there are forests with still activated bombs that could explode at any time.”

‘Normal life’

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Ukrainian officials are also urging visitors to stay away until the end of the war.

Visit Ukraine

Day trips last 3-4 hours but can be extended based on demand. The company says proceeds from all ticket sales go to support war refugees.

Oleksii Vlasenko, 32, a Kyiv-based business travel entrepreneur, told CNN he attended one of the tours in July, visiting several conflict-damaged towns. He said that although he faced no apparent danger during the trip, there was inherent danger.

“Of course there is always a risk, as the war continues, but I think it’s different now,” he said. “People are interested in traveling to see the destruction after the war. However, I would not recommend the tour for women and children, but for young men, why not?

“In Kyiv, Lviv, Bucha, Irpin, there is normal life now, despite daily rocket warnings, there are no more occupying Russian soldiers.”

Among the tours on offer is a collection called “Brave Cities”, which includes destinations like “the strong and invincible Bucha and Irpin” – two places near Kyiv that were brutally targeted by Russia at the start of the invasion. .

The highlights read like a retrospective of some of the conflict’s worst headlines, with trips to bombed-out residential areas and damaged cultural treasures.

Other city tours include “Persistent and Hardy Sumy”, “Kyiv in a Day”, “Lviv Sightseeing Tour” and “Odessa – a Pearl by the Sea”.

Certain areas such as Mariupol and Mykolaiv, either under Russian control or still under sustained attack by Russian forces, remain closed to visits.

But Taraneko is optimistic he will invite visitors there next year when, he says, the war will hopefully be over.

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