Since the ‘ Orange Revolution ’of 2003, the Ukrainian government has loosened its economic ties with Russia and made progress towards democracy and a market economy. The Ukraine is better known for its agricultural and industrial resources than for tourism. Winters are less severe than in Russia, with snow lying an average of 80 days in Kiev. This attractive capital on the River Dnieper was historically the nucleus of the fi rst Russian state before its destruction by the Mongol invasions in the thirteenth century. The surviving medieval heritage includes the Caves Monastery and the Cathedral of Saint Vladimir. Whereas the eastern part of the country is largely Russian in outlook, the Western Ukraine was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire prior to 1918, and Lvov, its principal city, has many Baroque buildings as reminders of that heritage. Western Ukraine also includes a section of the Carpathian Mountains. The principal focus of tourism is the southern part of the Crimea Peninsula, where the warm climate and beautiful coastal scenery –in contrast to the uniformity of the Ukrainian steppes –made it a favourite of the Russian nobility before the 1917 Revolution. Under Communism, resorts such as Yalta were made available to all Soviet citizens, and following the collapse of the Soviet Union, to foreign tourists with hard currency to spend. The battlefi elds of the Crimean War (1854 – 1856) near the fortress of Sevastopol provide a secondary attraction for British and French visitors. Further to the west, the elegant port city and resort of Odessa features prominently on Black Sea cruise itineraries.
Belarus has been slow to change from a centrally planned economy and exemplifi es the problems faced by the former Soviet republics in promoting a tourist image and identifying a USP. At fi rst sight the resource base is not particularly promising; the country has been overshadowed by Poland and Russia and repeatedly invaded throughout its history. It was also more badly affected than the Ukraine by the Chernobyl disaster. On the other hand, Belarus can offer the largest remaining area of the unmodifi ed mixed forest that once covered most of Europe, interspersed with extensive marshes and peat bogs. There is potential here for eco-tourism, as well as hunting and fi shing trips, as currency earners. The forest also produces the raw materials for the traditional craft industries that have largely disappeared elsewhere. As for the cities, Brest and Minsk lie on the main route from the West to Moscow, and although transit tourism is important, there is as yet little to persuade visitors to stay for longer periods.
Between 1918 and 1945 Romania ruled over what is now Moldova, west of the River Dnister, and the two countries share a similar language and culture. However, there is a large Russian minority with separatist ambitions who have created a de facto state within Moldova –Transdniestria –which is recognised by Russia, but not by the rest of the international community. Moldova has the advantage of a relatively warm, sunny climate that favours large-scale wine production. As in other cities of the former USSR, theatre companies from the capital, Chisinau, are touring the West to earn much-needed foreign exchange and perhaps gain publicity for the country’s cultural attractions.
The three countries to the south of the natural barrier formed by the Caucasus Mountains have more in common with the Mediterranean region or the Middle East than with Russia. They have great tourism potential –a favourable climate, spectacular scenery, a rich cultural heritage going back to ancient times and populations with a tradition of hospitality and business enterprise. Yet the prospects for tourism have been blighted since the late 1980s by inter-communal violence, for example the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the enclave of NagornoKarabagh and the separatist movements in Georgia. The failure to resolve these disputes by peaceful means is an obstacle not only to regional co-operation in tourism promotion, but also to the exploitation of the oil resources of the Caspian Basin and the development of trade links with the West.
We can best describe the situation of tourism in Georgia by looking at some of its component regions, including the two autonomous republics:
● Abkhazia in the north-west used to attract millions of Russians to the Black Sea resorts of Sukhumi, Gagra and Pitsunda. In 1991 – 1992 the tourism industry here was devastated by the civil war between the central government in Tblisi and Abkhazian separatists. This breakaway state is not recognised by the international community and tourism has not recovered;
● Adzharia in the south-west has fewer beaches but offers lush subtropical landscapes featuring tea plantations and lemon orchards. Batumi, the capital of the autonomous republic, is a port of call for cruise ships and a base for excursions to other parts of Georgia;
● The High Caucasus includes the skiing and trekking resort of Gaudari, but further development in the mountains is hindered by poor communications and ethnic unrest in the South Ossetia region and
● Tblisi and Kutaisi are the main tourist centres in Georgia. This part of the country is noted for its wines and a strong culinary tradition (in contrast to the mediocre catering which is characteristic of most of the former USSR).
Tourism in Armenia has been overshadowed by the effects of the 1988 earthquake, the country’s landlocked situation with two hostile neighbours and historical memories of the 1915 genocide of a million Armenians. The snow-capped peak of Ararat is a holy mountain and national symbol for Armenians, dominating the horizon in the capital, Erevan, yet it is virtually inaccessible as it lies across the border in Turkey. The economy is dependent on remittances from the millions of ethnic Armenians living in the USA, Canada, France and Russia, who also account for the majority of the 510 000 or so international tourist arrivals. Armenia can claim to be the world’s oldest Christian nation and hoped to boost tourism by staging celebrations for the 1700th anniversary in 2003. In fact, the country’s main attractions are the ancient churches and monasteries in a spectacular lake and mountain setting. Armenia’s physical isolation as a high plateau separated by mountain barriers from its neighbours is reinforced by border tensions and the lack of rail, road and even air links with Azerbaijan and Turkey.
Azerbaijan has immense oil resources, and for this reason it has attracted a much greater amount of foreign investment than Armenia and Georgia combined. A good deal of this money has gone into hotel building in the capital, Baku, for a new wave of business tourists. This is a predominantly Muslim nation, with religious and language ties to Iran and Turkey. Some of the oil wealth is being used to conserve the rich cultural heritage and create a system of national parks that will eventually cover 10 per cent of the national territory. Although Baku has been an oil boom town before –in the early years of the twentieth century –much remains from earlier periods, and the well-preserved historic quarter has a strong Middle Eastern ambience with its minarets and bazaars. Azerbaijan has considerable biodiversity, from mountain and desert landscapes in the west to the subtropical coastlands along the Caspian Sea in the east, while eco-tourism has an important role to play in stemming the depopulation of small rural communities.
THE CENTRAL ASIAN REPUBLICS
Most of Central Asia east of the Caspian Sea consists of desert and steppe, fringed by mountains to the south and east. Russian rule did not begin until the late nineteenth century and was imposed on civilisations that had developed over thousands of years. The Muslim religion and heritage are dominant throughout the region, and the Russian infl uence is relatively slight, except in Kazakhstan and the modern cities of Tashkent and Almaty, which were massively industrialised during the Soviet era. The Soviet authorities were also responsible for most of the environmental problems in the region. The best-known example is the shrinkage of the Aral Sea, which was brought about by vast irrigation projects for cotton cultivation in the desert. This has resulted in a deterioration of the local climate, with salt- and sand-laden winds blowing in from the dried-up lake bed. The effect of 9/11 and the war in Afghanistan in 2001 has been to align the Central Asian republics with the USA, to counter the threat of Islamic fundamentalism to their secular, authoritarian regimes. There are important differences between the individual republics, which are refl ected in the extent of tourism development. Uzbekistan offers the richest heritage in the region and has a well-developed tourism industry, but one that still discourages independent travel. Its capital, Tashkent, is the major air hub of Central Asia and an important conference venue. However, tourism is mainly concentrated in the oasis cities of Khiva, Samarkand and Bokhara, which served as staging points on the ‘ Silk Road ’ –the ancient overland trade route linking the Mediterranean and China via Persia. Of these:
● Samarkand is the best known as it boasts one of the world’s most striking Islamic monuments – the Registan, resplendently decorated in blue tiles and gold leaf;
● Khiva is a perfectly preserved ‘ museum-city ’and
● Bokhara is a hive of activity, with bazaars similar to those of the Middle East. Kazakhstan is a vast expanse of steppe and desert, except where it includes parts of the Tian Shan and Altai mountain ranges. Tourism possibilities include whitewater rafting on the River Ili and trekking in the mountains, where the resort of Medeo is an important centre for skiing and ice skating. The former capital Almaty (Alma-Ata) is the second largest city of Central Asia, with direct air links to Western Europe. Astana, the new capital built in the middle of the steppe with the revenues from Kazakhstan’s vast natural gas reserves, is a showpiece of modern architecture, while Baikonur is a major centre of space research. Kyrgystan is dominated by the glaciated Tian Shan mountains and has as its main attraction the lake of Issik Kul, which is a destination for health tourism. Tajikstan is the smallest and the most mountainous, and was throughout the 1990s the most politically unstable of the Central Asian republics, and this has held back the development of its tourism industry. Turkmenistan includes some of the hottest and driest locations in Central Asia. The country is noted for the traditional carpet-weaving industry based in Ashqabad and Merv. In ancient times, Nissa was the power base of the Parthians, who were the Romans ’great rivals for control of the Middle East. With vast reserves of nat ural gas at its disposal, the government sees little need to encourage leisure tourism .
● A long period of state control over tourism, amounting to 40 years in Eastern Europe and 70 years in the former Soviet Union, has left a legacy which differentiates these countries strongly from those of Western Europe.
● Since 1989 this has been followed by a strong liberalising trend, characterised by economic restructuring, foreign investment, privatisation and the encouragement of local initiative. Western involvement in the development of tourism has greatly increased.
● Entry, exit and currency restrictions were severe under the Communist regimes but have eased with their demise.
● The former regimes encouraged social tourism linked to health and education, but as incomes rise with the successful transition to a market economy, Western-style domestic tourism will increase in signifi cance.
● Outbound tourism is showing more rapid growth as the region’s economy improves. Entry to the European Union by a number of countries in the region has encouraged investment in tourism and boosted demand.
● The removal of Communism has improved the image of the region in Western eyes. This needs to be reinforced by each country emphasising its individual attractions. The differences between countries were previously concealed by the grey uniformity of Communism and are now much more evident.
● There is increasing scope for innovation in tourism products and niche marketing. Some countries, notably the Czech Republic, have made much more progress than others.
● External air links to Eastern Europe have improved, but there is a danger that the encouragement of mass tourism in the form of short city breaks might well result in the region’s cities becoming a cheap playground for West Europeans.
● Environmental problems are already widespread, and eco-tourism is in its infancy in most of these countries.
● Internal transport systems need to be improved, to cope with rising car ownership levels and the expectations of Western tourists.
● Future growth in tourism could also be severely constrained by the negative factors of political instability, ethnic strife and rising crime levels, as economic growth fails to meet people’s expectations.
● Poor standards of service and mediocre products may also deter tourists, once the novelty of visiting a previously ‘ forbidden ’ destination has faded.