Crimean history can be told in one word: invasion. Greeks, Romans, Goths, Tatar-Mongols, Ottomans, Russians, Brits and Frenchmen during the Crimean war, Nazi Germans – no army that roamed in the vicinity has ever avoided the temptation of seizing this gem of a peninsula with its stunning limestone plateaus and lush subtropical vegetation.
In March 2014 Crimea changed hands again. As Kyiv was recovering from street fights that led to the ousting of president Yanukovych, Russian troops aided by local paramilitaries took major facilities around the peninsula and blockaded Ukrainian army units and warships. The largely peaceful takeover was followed by a hastily organised referendum, as a result of which Crimea was incorporated into Russia.
From the standpoint of the international community, Crimea remains a part of Ukraine. Not even Moscow’s closest allies, Belarus and Kazakhstan, have accepted the annexation. Yet the gloomy new reality of a heavily fortified border which has emerged between the Russian-controlled Crimea and Ukraine proper presents a set of challenges for travellers.
Crossing the border
The main dilemma for foreign travellers to Crimea is posed by the conflict of legality and practicality, since the only method of entering Ukraine is technically illegal.
It’s not that the Crimean border is completely impenetrable – Ukrainian nationals are allowed to cross by car, although train services from the mainland have been discontinued. But Ukraine has adopted a ‘law on occupied territories’, which stipulates that holders of foreign passports can only travel between Crimea and Ukraine proper with a special permission from the Ukrainian government. These permits are issued by the Migration Service of Ukraine on no other grounds than the presence of close relatives or their relatives in Crimea, journalistic and religious activities or participation in the work of the Crimean Tatar Majlis, an organisation outlawed in Russia. So basically it’s a no-go for tourists.
By contrast, it’s very easy to enter Crimea from the Russian side. That involves flying into Moscow or St Petersburg on a valid Russian visa – or without it, if you are a citizen of Israel, Turkey and most South American countries – and then taking an onward domestic flight into Simferopol. The Kerch bridge, due to be opened in 2018, will simplify travel for motorists and re-establish the railway connection between Crimea and mainland Russia. Until it’s open, ferries carry passengers and cars across the straits.
There are no borders checks and no additional stamps in your passport if you enter Crimea via Russia. But from the Ukrainian point of view, doing that is tantamount to illegal border crossing. Ukraine has indeed punished a large number of Russian cultural figures and a much smaller number of Western politicians for entering Crimea from the Russian side. They have all been declared persona non grata and barred from entering Ukraine.
Since almost no government in the world has recognised the Russian takeover of Crimea, there are also ethical dilemmas regarding travel there. Although Ukrainians are free to travel to the peninsula, most of them won’t do so for political reasons (that said, many Ukrainians won’t care whether Western travellers go to Crimea or not).
The idea of travel boycott is also popular among liberal Russians who oppose the annexation. But it’s not only the Russian state that gets ‘punished’ – the boycott also affects the locals, who are largely involved in the peninsula’s travel industry. Many, if not most, Crimeans supported the Russian takeover – in Sevastopol in particular, the level of support is absolutely overwhelming.
However, owners of small and medium businesses, such as guesthouses and restaurants, often belong to the minority that opposes changes. Importantly, prior to the occupation much of the travel industry in Crimea was controlled by Crimean Tatars – the largest ethnic minority, which remains staunchly pro-Ukrainian. Some of them are indeed in favour of all forms of boycott, even if it affects their incomes, but others are not that radical.
One last thing to keep in mind is that Western travellers’ contribution to Crimean travel industry’s revenues has always been modest if not insignificant.
What has changed
Those who have been to Crimea before might be surprised by how little has changed – at least on the surface. The main change for travellers is that now they can’t use international payment cards like Visa due to Western sanctions specifically targeting Crimea.
Other changes mostly concerned locals. The Russian rouble has replaced the Ukrainian hryvna as the only legal currency, which led to an increase in retail prices, though for Crimeans that was compensated by higher Russian salaries. It did, however, hit Russian tourists who benefited from cheap Ukrainian prices prior to 2014.
Ukrainian products gradually disappeared from supermarkets, replaced by Russian equivalents, sometimes of inferior quality. Severed power supplies from the Ukrainian mainland led to a series of blackouts, although the Russians have managed to alleviate that situation by providing additional capacities. The termination of fresh water supplies by the Ukrainians has badly affected the agriculture in Crimea’s north.
Predictably, the Russian takeover hit the local travel industry, but only to an extent. Russian officials claim that 5.5 million tourists visited Crimea in 2016, compared with 6.1 million in 2012 when Ukraine still controlled the peninsula. Ukrainian officials claim that Russian figures are grossly exaggerated. On the ground, beaches do look emptier than prior to 2014, but the real decrease is hard to assess.
There have been no major changes on the sightseeing scene in Crimea since it was researched for the current edition of Lonely Planet’s Ukraine. Bakhchysaray and Sevastopol remain our favourite destinations, with Yalta a distant third.
The capital of the peninsula’s largest minority, the Crimean Tatars, Bakhchysaray features the palace of the khans who ruled the peninsula before Russia. From there, the main road leads to the picturesque Uspensky cave monastery and further on to a limestone plateau, which was transformed into a cave city of Chufut-Kale by medieval Crimeans.
Sevastopol is a very pleasant and historically important city with a stunning bay filled with Russian warships. The impressive Balaklava fjord nearby was the base of British troops during the allied invasion of Crimea in 1854. The ‘charge of the light brigade’ and ‘thin red line’ sites are all nearby.
Yalta’s attractions include writer Anton Chekhov’s House-Museum and the Livadia Palace, where Soviet and Anglo-British allies carved up post-WWII Europe.
Travelling to Ukraine? Here’s all you need to know to stay safe:
The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office advises against all travel to Crimea and the Donetsk and Lugansk regions. For updates about safety in the rest of Ukraine, check gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/ukraine.
For more information on recent events in Ukraine, see Lonely Planet’s special update for travellers, produced as an addendum for the 4th edition of the Ukraine guidebook: media.lonelyplanet.com/shop/pdfs/Ukraine-4-2014-special-update.pdf
Last updated in September 2017