The sudden development of tourism from Saudi Arabia to Ukraine is a strange consequence of the post-pandemic era. This Eastern European country, which left the Soviet Union 30 years ago, attracts Arab tourists with cheap prices, no visas, and incredible European nature.
Climate change has also added arguments in favor of the Slavic country – while the Gulf countries are in unbearable heat, the air temperature in Ukraine is much more pleasant. The climate there, of course, is also changing – let’s remind you of the winter of 2019-2020 without snow, which we wrote about in our author’s column.
So in winter wealthy Ukrainians usually fly to the UAE and Egypt, and in summer after the COVID-19 crisis, it turns out, tourists fly in the opposite direction?
Lets’ check the article by Chas News, Ukrainian online media, about why Arabian tourists chose Ukraine, how much they spend during the day and how they look for halal food.
A few images that became typical for Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, streets: a boy in a floral T-shirt and white shorts walks down the street, followed by a girl in a black hijab and white sandals barefoot. A couple of bearded guys on a single electric scooter are passing nearby. A hundred meters later, a group of girls, again in hijabs, are waiting for a taxi.
The fact that all this is happening in Kyiv can be understood only due to the building of the famous Bessarabian market behind the tourists and “Roshen” branded packages in their hands (“Roshen” firm is owned by Petro Poroshenko, ex-president of Ukraine – Ecolife).
Cheap flights and liberal visa requirements
Crowds of tourists from Saudi Arabia appeared in Kyiv, Lviv, and Bukovel (ski resort – Ecolife) two weeks ago, in mid-June. In 2021, Ukraine has liberalized visa requirements for a number of Gulf countries. Due to this, the Saudi airline Flynas has launched regular flights to Kyiv, which now operates daily. Lviv has also appeared in the airline’s ticket reservation system, although there are no flights available there yet.
Vadym Dashevsky, deputy chairman of the Association of Muslims of Ukraine, says that this year several “prominent” travel bloggers from Saudi Arabia visited Ukraine and recorded positive tourist reviews on YouTube. Prior to that, the Arabs preferred to rest in the summer from the infernal heat of the Arabian deserts in Bosnia. This country has got a large number of Muslims, and European nature: mountains, forests, lakes, and rivers, which are admired by the Saudis.
The typical route of the Saudis is as follows: two or four days in Kyiv, and then Western Ukraine: Bukovel, Truskavets, etc. On average, they spend 7-14 days visiting the Post-Soviet country.
For most Saudis, Ukraine is a novelty, while they have visited European countries many times. In addition, most of Europe is still closed due to the pandemic, and neither a visa nor quarantine is required to visit Ukraine.
And the Saudis in Ukraine are happy with the prices. According to Anton Taranenko, CEO of Visit Ukraine, they spend an average of €200 a day here. For residents of the country with an average salary of more than €3.6 thousand, this not so much money. But for domestic restaurateurs and hoteliers, guests with a similar level of costs are “a gift from heaven” (the average salary in the private sector in Kyiv looks like €300, in the government sector – €200 – Ecolife).
“Tourists from Saudi Arabia are rich and desirable in many countries around the world. They travel, as they say, thoroughly: with whole families and with everything. Some even bring their own kettle. No kidding, their luggage can be calculated by a dozen suitcases. They don’t know what to expect in Ukraine,” Dashevsky said.
Unfortunately, some Ukrainians have already begun to take advantage of the Saudis’ ignorance of local realities. As blogger Sergey Naumovich recently wrote, one of the Saudi tourists told him about a “childish” fraud scheme he encountered in several Bukovel establishments. The administrator urges foreigners to sit at a certain table. It has a QR-code pasted on it, which leads to a “special” menu, the prices of which are inflated several times compared to the usual ones. Arab tourists quickly “broke the scheme”, and seeing the persistence of the administrator, just began to sit at other tables. Of course, such behavior does not beautify our country, although this is another story.
In general, tourists from Saudi Arabia stay in four- or five-star hotels and, according to Taranenko, do not complain about the quality of service. Is it surprising that some rooms do not have the usual Muslim shower or toilet?
At first glance, there are no special problems with food for Arab tourists in Kyiv. “Tourists from the Middle East often order a cutlet in Kyiv style, because, on the one hand, it is made of chicken, and on the other – this is one of the hallmarks of Ukrainian gastronomy,” says Dmitry Borisov, a restaurateur.
In the second half of June, tourists from Arab countries could be seen at both Sushi and McDonald’s. And some of the travelers even tried to pass the “quest” and place an order at Aroma Coffee on Independence Square in Kyiv, studying the menu written in Cyrillic.
Conservatives, who are skeptical of culinary experiments, should also have no problems. “In Kyiv, more than 200 establishments specialize in Middle Eastern, Turkish, Uzbek, and Azerbaijani cuisines, etc., which is about 10% of their total number,” said Olga Nasonova, director of Restaurant Consulting.
This figure is confirmed by Roman Tugashev, founder of “Ulichnaya eda” (“Street food” festival) and food hall Bay Food Station. According to him, at each festival and in the Bay there are at least three or four locations of Middle Eastern cuisine, which is about 7% of the total number of participants.
If we talk about establishments whose menu includes elements of Middle Eastern cuisine, there will be more than 30% of them in the capital of Ukraine.
The problem is that, according to Dashevsky, only a part of Saudis agrees to eat in ordinary establishments, simply choosing dishes without pork from the menu. The rest strictly adhere to Muslim halal norms, which are not limited to the exclusion of pork and alcohol from the menu.
And there is a problem with certified halal restaurants in Ukraine. “Certification is a long process. So far we have completely passed it for one of our formats. Shawarma chicken is specially prepared for our brand and has all the necessary documents. That’s why we boldly point out in the menu that it’s halal,” says Borisov about how he adapted the menu of his BPSH fast food for Muslims.
However, according to Victoria Nesterenko, a member of the association of halal industry “Ukrhalal”, the fact that the dish was prepared from halal ingredients does not mean its ritual purity. (For example, when cooking halal dishes, you should not use kitchen utensils and dishes that have previously been in contact with pork).
“No restaurant in Ukraine has been certified,” Nesterenko said. She explains that in a certified production or catering establishment, a representative of the certification body must be present at all times and monitor compliance with all rules. Therefore, the monthly fee is at least 20 thousand UAH (€610).
However, Nesterenko says that the life of Ukrainian Muslims is based on the principle of trust: “if the owner of the institution claims that he has halal food, the guest trusts him. If this is not the case, the responsibility lies entirely with the restaurateur. “
“Please sell us a ram”
“Representatives of local communities know the tested places with halal food, where they go and advise everyone. But this applies to large cities – Kyiv, Odessa, and so on. But in Western Ukraine with halal food, tourists from Arab countries have questions,” – adds Vadym Dashevsky. He recalls a comic case in which several travelers from Saudi Arabia could not find halal meat in the Carpathians, so they went around the yards asking to sell them a ram.
Bukovel investors have been working for a long time to turn the ski resort into a popular place for all-season recreation. After all, this is a common problem of all ski resorts in the Carpathians. And a new trend of Arab interest in recreation in Ukraine can contribute to this mission.
“If someone put a halal mark on the hut, it would increase attendance,” Dashevsky said. In addition, according to Nasonova, the mark that the institution has halal products, attracts not only Muslims. “It simply came to our notice then. Because halal foods are easier to digest,” she says.
The only nuance, according to Nasonov: “tourists from Middle Eastern countries are accustomed to comfort. They want to eat slowly, sitting on comfortable sofas. Communication is important for them. I even have the phrase “halal interior” in circulation, i.e. one that encourages gatherings and communication.” Therefore, in her opinion, the increase in sales of shawarma and street food, in general, should not be expected.
Be that as it may, the experts we interviewed are unanimous in their opinion that in the world, in particular in Ukraine, interest in Middle Eastern cuisine is a gastronomic trend. And in the near future the number of such establishments, or individual items on the menu, will only increase. And the “invasion” of Arab tourists will speed up this process. As an example, Dashevsky mentions the Sofru and Musafir restaurants, which were opened in Kyiv in 2014 by Crimean Tatars who left the peninsula occupied by Russian Federation. In the past seven years, these institutions have become, without exaggeration, “cult” places.
Taranenko says that representatives of top tour operators from Saudi Arabia will arrive in Ukraine in June. They will be given tours of Kyiv and Lviv, where they will look at the state of infrastructure and hotels and begin to form package deals for organized tourists. Now the issue with Arabic-speaking guides, which are still very few, is being resolved. According to him, this will interest Ukraine not only Saudis, but also residents of Qatar and Bahrain.
In short, the number of tourists from Arab countries in Ukraine will only grow. At least in 2021. And Ukrainian entrepreneurs working in the hospitality industry should start adapting to the new reality. Whoever does this first will not only “repel” what was missed during the last quarantine year, but can also break a good jackpot.
You may also read Ecolife’s explanation of how tourists can thank nature for its free services.