Luke Jackson completed his master’s thesis in Kyiv, measuring the image of Ukraine as a tourism destination amongst over 1500 foreign travellers using over 40 indicators and extensive interviews. He separated the respondents on the basis of their proximity to the country, whether or not they had been to Ukraine before and the sources they had used to learn about the country.
He also worked in communications and marketing for BeInside Ukraine, contributing a lot to our company.
Toured Ukraine from the Carpathians to Chernihiv and from Lutsk to Luhansk.
Why do you find Kyiv an interesting destination for the foreigners? Do you agree with the idea of a ‘virgin city’, the place that most Europeans haven’t visited yet? Or is it not only because of its ‘novelty’?
Of course, Kyiv, and indeed Ukraine in general, continues to be seen by many foreign adventurers as uncharted territory and the ‘final frontier of Europe’ that will make their travel stories, badges on their backpacks and social media accounts stand out. However, this is definitely not the only reason Kyiv attracts millions of foreign visitors every year. The main motivation for visitation became very clear even in the early stages of my research into the attitudes of foreigners about Ukraine- it is the true borderland. In almost all conversations, in some way or another, the idea came up that Ukraine sits on a cultural and linguistic crossroads, is the perfect balance between the foreign and the familiar, is close enough to Western European cities for a short break but not quite a weekend and has long since been recognised as the historical middle ground between East and West.
Just a short walk around Maidan Nezalezhnosti exhibits this perfectly. The seven sister-style Hotel Ukraine and the majestic Central Post Office with its Cyrillic ‘поштамт’ signage share the square with a Georgian street food restaurant and a soya-loving, hipster coffee shop. An orthodox priest strolls along with Apple headphones. A cart vendor offers Soviet badges and hats outside a glass shopping centre filled with segways and drones. A teenager compliments her Big Mac with a glass of homemade kvass ladelled from a bucket by a headscarved old lady as a brand new white Audi effortlessly overtakes a Lada. Families laugh together and cross the car-free cobbles in complete serenity. The same cobbles on which freedom was won to the sound of chants and the smell of burning rubber less than a decade ago. Foreigners are fascinated by this contrast, incoherence, and speed of change and they are unsure what to make of it at first but they soon realise that Ukraine is not as foreign, unsafe or indeed ‘novel’, as they had once thought. It’s exciting and comfortingly familiar at the same time.
Despite all the improvements that happened in the last few years, Kyiv still has lots of infrastructural flaws, that obstruct the development of tourism here. Can you please name some that annoy you the most?
I mean, the improvements I’ve seen in touristic infrastructure since I have been living and visiting Ukraine have been incredible! Just look at the new English-language maps and signs on the streets and the new express electric train to Boryspil airport! The first piece of advice I give to anyone visiting Kyiv for the first time is to use the public transport system which is without a shadow of a doubt the easiest, most reliable and cheapest I’ve ever come across! Yet, I can’t comprehend why there is no branded, interactive tourist information office with city ambassadors. Most capitals have this but Kyiv does not. Just think how great it would be if there was a one-stop-shop where tourists could find out about tours and attractions and get ask any questions! A Visit Kyiv app is the next step too!
The huge development of mass tourism in such giants as Paris or Rome made those cities slightly uncomfortable for their inhabitants. What can we do in Kyiv to prevent it from happening as tourism grows here?
Of course, overtourism is a major concern nowadays as people travel wider, more cheaply and more often to concentrated, often urban areas. Naturally, the situation in Kyiv is very far from reaching the desperate realities of some Parisians or Romans. However, of course, it’s important to keep this potential in the front of our minds! I think Kyiv and Ukraine should manage its reputation through branding and marketing, learning from the mistakes of others to stay ahead of the game. Kyiv should market itself to certain types of tourists and not to just anyone!
Keeping that unwashed edge of adventure, unpredictability and initial discomfort in Kyiv’s projected image will ensure that only a certain niche tourist will come. And there are plenty of them! My research showed that the least adventure, risk, and ‘difference’ adverse tourists had the best image of Ukraine, with those searching for familiar holding the worst. Targeted marketing is key. It’s all a question of who you want to attract and I think that should embrace certain aspects of its image and use them to your benefit- even the negative ones! After all, it’s focusing on quantity, not quality that is responsible for overtourism and only attracting certain tourist types is not always a bad thing!
How can we promote ‘unconventional’ places in the country, so the visitors don’t just limit themselves with Kyiv, Lviv, Odesa, and Chornobyl?
Ukraine is the biggest country in Europe and so diverse! Making it easier for visitors to move out of the major destinations would be great for the future of Ukrainian tourism. This is starting to happen with the revival of local airports, such as Kharkiv and Lviv, by European low-cost carriers and hopefully will continue with services to the Carpathian Mountains for hiking, culture, and skiing via Ivano-Frankivsk airport. What’s more, some tourists actually enjoy train travel and the long distance trains can be very comfortable and unique tourism experience. Why not put restaurants carriages in the trains? Introduce unlimited train passes for tourists? Have special tourist trains to explore some of Ukraine’s most isolated zones?
Of course, tour operators and marketers need to decentralise their efforts too or at least think of how to integrate other ‘unconventional’ destinations into their offerings! But what’s the point in this if you can not get them there efficiently?
Did you have any cultural experience in Ukraine, that isn’t yet a touristic product, but could easily be one?
Ukrainian hospitality is such an underexploited tourism product. Many tourists leave having tried many dishes, drank local craft beer and Lviv coffee and sampled the delights of a street market, but unfortunately few get the full experience! I think it would be a great rural product to be able to invite foreigners to smaller villages and datchas, learn to make traditional products, cook Ukrainian dishes, walk, share stories, eat around the same table and enjoy local music. A Ukrainian welcome is like no other. I believe Ukraine would be a great ‘slow tourism’, relaxation, rural destination and tourism, as we all know, is known for bringing people closer. It might just present a different side of Ukraine to the world- not just the country with Kyiv as its capital!
What does Ukraine have a lack of in terms of travel companies and travel experiences?
So many possibilities. In terms of companies, I think there is definitely room for a smart travel company in Ukraine that helps tourists using technological tools such as apps. In terms of experiences, I believe the future will bring greater integration and interdependence of the tourism products of Ukraine and neighbouring Belarus, Romania and Moldova to attract long-haul travellers- creating Eurotrip 2.0.
However, I think the real game changer will be when a fresh start-up makes it easier to visit the areas outside of the major cities and attractions, focusing on local, responsible, community-focused tourism. If this is done respectfully of local communities and in the spirit of exchange and authentic experiences, this would quickly be a hit!
What are your personal favorite experience in Ukraine (even if it is a mainstream one)?
That’s like asking me about my favourite food- there are just too many! I once hitchhiked from Kyiv to the Black Sea in one day with a friend avoiding all major roads! We got to see some of the most hidden parts of Ukraine, were invited to eat with locals and were welcomed with kindness and endless stories at each and every point. I’ve never felt so free and safe! It was during that trip that I realised just how diverse and large Ukraine is and how so much of it is so unknown, even to Ukrainians themselves! I would need a lifetime to explore it all! What I thought would be a challenging experience turned out to be a thrilling one.
What were the main lessons you’ve learned from working in a Ukrainian company and writing a thesis with a focus on tourism in Ukraine?
During my time at BeInside Ukraine, I learned about an entire country, a whole different culture, rich cuisine, and a new language. Every day was an intense school day! Yet, if I have to pick one, I think the biggest lesson for me was that tourists do not want artificial, polished perfection. Many tourists to Ukraine wanted to experience the country’s true identity and character, albeit with flaws. There is great value in genuinely embracing and showcasing a destination’s unique present reality and history. Ukrainian tourism is developing at an unprecedented pace, however, it should shy away from denying its past, its culture and its differences in favour of competition with Western European destinations. For me, a major part of this is not to cover up or romanticise the socio-political situation but rather counteract false myths and stereotypes and show people the real Ukraine- imperfect like all destinations. In the end, we don’t travel for perfection.
This brings me onto the biggest conclusion and lesson from my thesis- ‘ignorance is not bliss’ and that unbiased information exchange is crucial for building Ukraine’s image. Those least familiar, having never researched, considered or visited Ukraine, had the worst image on all components, with those most familiar holding the best image. Ukraine’s ‘bad image’ is a product of the press and ignorance and doesn’t reflect the current reality witnessed by those who take the time to talk to experienced visitors, put down the newspaper and open a traveller forum and add Ukraine to their trip list. So what are you waiting for?
If you’re interested in Luke’s adventures, feel free to visit his Instagram page.