A backward country infested with corruption, AIDS, prostitutes and racist thugs.
This is the description of Ukraine splashed on the pages of tabloids across Europe in recent weeks, warning fans of the dangers of visiting the country for the Euro 2012 soccer championship in June.
While some of these criticisms ring true, Ukrainians, tourism experts and expatriates say these views are often exaggerated or outright false. But Ukraine does a bad job of advertising itself, and successive governments have consistently failed to tackle the issues that give it a bad reputation.
Despite an ancient history, beautiful nature and hospitable people, it seems Ukraine remains among the destinations least favored by international travel agencies and Western democracies.
This is so despite the fact that Ukraine, unlike Russia and many other former Soviet republics, has allowed visa-free travel to citizens of most Western nations since 2005.
Ukrainians are hoping the upcoming football championship, with its 16 matches in four cities from June 9 to July 1, will change the nation’s image for the better among tourists.
Estimates vary widely about how many foreign tourists are expected for Euro 2012 – officials say 1 million, while others put the number at 200,000 or even lower.
Official figures suggest Ukraine had more than 20 million tourists in 2010, the eighth-highest total in Europe.
However, those numbers are deceptive as they include any foreigner entering the country for any purpose. The State Statistics Committee says that perhaps as few as 108,000 people came for strictly tourism reasons.
Websites are often far from positive in their warnings to travelers.
The U.S. State Department website for travelers (www.travel.state.gov) offers detailed descriptions of what to look out for, including widespread corruption and crime, the volatile political situation, sub-par drinking water, food and medical centers and dangerous roads.
It points out complicated entry and exit rules and an array of safety threats. Some of the warnings are on target, while others seem overblown or out of date.
Ukraine’s once pothole-littered roads have, for example, improved noticeably in recent years. Still, driving in Ukraine remains dangerous due to the high speeds and aggressive behavior that some drivers exhibit, particularly ones in luxurious automobiles.
Drive “defensively at all times,” the website warns. “Local drivers often disregard traffic rules, they are often poorly trained or drive without a valid driver’s license. Besides that, drivers can be dangerously aggressive and normally do not respect the rights of pedestrians, even at clearly marked pedestrian crossings, and regularly drive on the sidewalks.”
Some points made on the site, such as the lack of convenient ramps at road underpasses and lifts on public transportation for the disabled, are spot on.
As a result, disabled people and people with infirmities are advised to scratch Ukraine from their travel plans. “Ukraine is not a disabled-friendly environment,” the website reads.
Still, the exceedingly dark description of Ukraine by the United States is not unusual.
A British governmental tourism website also has scary warnings for travelers about scams and hate crimes.
Even beautiful Ukrainian women are sometimes presented as dangerous to guests.
“Keep a close watch on your drink because some of these girls are looking for the opportunity to add drugs to it. Be sure to leave your valuables with a friend or the hotel front desk,” warns a private U.S. travel website (www.rjstours.shawbiz.ca/tips.htm).
Some foreign tourists say Ukraine’s problems are exaggerated.
“It’s the Ukrainians themselves and the Ukrainian media that perpetuate the idea that the country is a bad place and not worthy of a stopover,” says American citizen Chris Collison. “I think part of the appeal of coming here is you don’t have to fight through crowds of tourists or feel like you are being sucked into another over-priced tourist trap at every corner.”
United Kingdom resident Ian Bearder says those tourists who ignore the bad hype are likely to find Ukraine is safer than many Western European cities. “The language can be a problem, but it’s almost always possible to find an English-speaking Ukrainian,” Bearder says.
Bearder spent two years in Ukraine and then came back home has written his own Ukraine tourism guide (www.bluetoyellow.com), including the warnings but also knocking down some false scary myths about the country.
Maryna Kryvunchenko, who manages a tourist information center, also believes that Ukraine’s positives outweigh the negatives.
“There are a lot of tourists who come here scared to the core by nightmare stories about Ukraine, but almost all of them find it a wonderful country after a few days here,” she says.
Kryvunchenko says that foreign tourists can always ask for advice in the information center if they have any questions or problems. “Our tourists always have kind words for Ukraine’s ancient cities and friendly people,” she says.