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At Sea : Crimea's waterfront retreats, once swimming with visitors, have lost their crowds and their luster. Except among those nostalgic for Soviet days.


YALTA, Ukraine — Like a vertical rotisserie, Irina Zlunitsina stands and slowly revolves her browning figure in the Black Sea sun in the firm belief that that is the best method of soaking up the fading rays of late summer.

In the heyday of Soviet holiday-taking, vacationers like this 21-year-old student from the Siberian outpost of Magadan had to stand while sunbathing for lack of space on the pebbly public beaches that were veritable forests of human bodies.

Today, the only reminders of the masses that once thronged this fabled Crimean resort from May through September are arrows painted on the promenade to separate strollers into opposing lanes.

Hit by an economic recession that has made paupers of millions throughout the former Soviet Union and left the new Ukrainian owners without the means to maintain their windfall, Yalta and the chain of resorts overlooking the murky Black Sea no longer suffer the seasonal maladies of seam-bursting crowds and pedestrian gridlock.

Crimea's hotels, guest houses and campgrounds are drawing fewer than half of their Soviet-era visitors as freedom to travel has tempted those with vacation money to exotic new destinations in Turkey, Cyprus and Greece.

"We thought this would be more affordable for us," says Zlunitsina, who, with her mother, Lidia, spent $1,700 just to travel the breadth of Russia before venturing south to this seaside resort, which is now part of another country. "But it's been disappointing. Everything is so expensive and there is no concept of service here. I think for my next vacation, I'll save a little bit longer and really go abroad."

Long the summer retreat of Russia's rich and famous, it was in Crimea that Anton Chekhov wrote "The Three Sisters" at nearby Gurzuf and Leo Tolstoy spent his last summers at a wooden-shuttered cottage above the sea. A century later, Crimea is now spurned by the newly wealthy as backward and by the newly poor as way beyond their means.

If Crimea still attracts a fraction of its former patrons, it may be because it retains the aura of the defunct Soviet Union for which many Russians and Ukrainians have become nostalgic. Private property is almost nonexistent here, and government agencies that act as proprietors have neither the money nor the interest to improve service.

"There's no economic freedom here. This is just a notion that is talked about in government and the newspapers," complains Alexander Kutyshev, deputy director of the state museum at Livadia Palace, venue of the 1945 Yalta Conference that crafted the post-World War II division of Europe. "The last private owner in this region was the czar."

Lawmakers in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, have yet to create a legal foundation protecting property rights, which has impeded both foreign and local investment.

While the slump in tourism has made Crimea one of the most depressed regions of economically devastated Ukraine, the hard times are seen by some as a natural correction of the warped Communist system that provided a few prerequisites--like all-expense-paid vacations--in lieu of a currency with any real buying power or an economy driven by consumer demand.

Although it was then impossible for individuals to organize vacations, thousands of factories and government offices provided favored employees with 24-day putevki that covered everything from air fare and hotel rooms to sightseeing excursions and communal meals. Individual travel was so rare and frowned-upon that those who arrived outside the state package-tour confines were labeled dikiye--savages.

But the wild ones now are the only encouraging exceptions to a bleak tourism picture, as they are feeding a fledgling bed-and-breakfast network and providing modest income to those locals with rooms to let.

"I wouldn't get by if not for the overnighters," says Raisa Ivanashenko, a retired beautician whose $30 monthly pension is often late. She and the legion of pensioners who meet planes, trains and buses to offer accommodation can get from $1- to $4-per-person each night, depending on their proximity to the seashore.

For visitors like Yelena Verbitskaya from the northern Ukrainian city of Chernigov, bunking down with a needy babushka is the only affordable option for a seaside vacation.

"I never was able to stay in the best places in the old days, either," the 50-year-old painter says matter-of-factly of her crude accommodation. "At least now we can go where we want and decide for ourselves how to spend our money."


Few are spending it at hotels and guest houses that run upward of $30 a night, as evidenced by record low occupancy rates and abandoned construction. Hundreds of concrete skeletons of half-built hotels dot the seashore, marking the stage at which their state underwriters realized the folly of expansion. Hundreds of other smaller guest houses have ceased to operate even in high season because there are too few travelers to support a staff.

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