What tourism looks like in Crimea

Story highlights

  • The Crimean peninsula was annexed by Russia two years ago
  • Photographer Didier Bizet found mostly Russian people vacationing there

(CNN)Photographer Didier Bizet was aware of the political situation in Crimea when he spent time there earlier this year.

But he wanted to document a different angle.
    Before Bizet went to Crimea -- a peninsula south of Ukraine, surrounded by the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov -- he read a Western European newspaper that said tourism has decreased over the years.
    Once he got there, people told him otherwise.
    "When I arrived and discussed with some people, they told me -- Russian people -- that it's not true," Bizet said. "Tourism is going up because of the new politic of Vladimir Putin, who's trying to make tourism (in Crimea) affordable for Russian people."
    In early 2014, Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych was removed from power following violent protests in Kiev. It was soon after that Russian-backed forces seized control of the Crimean peninsula and Russia annexed it.
    Photographer Didier Bizet
    This taking of territory remains controversial and is widely disputed. In 2014, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk called it "a robbery on an international scale." Crimea has an ethnic Russian majority, but it had long been a semiautonomous region within Ukraine.
    Bizet's images show vacationers in Crimea about two years after the annexation, and there is an inescapable political backdrop.
    The Russians he spoke to believe tourism is increasing there and that Putin is making conscious steps to ensure that happens. According to The New York Times, state workers in Russia have received subsidized travel packages to Crimea, and Putin himself has visited the territory several times in the past two years.
    "I would say that the tourism (in Crimea) is like 95% Russian people," Bizet said. "I did not meet any Italian, English, French. I was the only French guy in Crimea."
    Bizet landed in Simferopol, the main city, and then when to Yalta, a resort town. He photographed all along the Crimean coast to Sevastopol, a seaside port.

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    The Parisian photographer said he felt like the only true tourist everywhere he went. Perhaps there were other foreigners around, but he never met them.
    "I didn't hear any languages except Russian," Bizet said. "I was expecting to see something different than in Russia, because I learned Ukraine is a little bit different -- it's more Western, West-oriented. ... (Crimea) was like totally Russian."
    The woman who helped Bizet throughout his trip was a Ukrainian from Simferopol. She told him she used to work for a Ukrainian tourism company, but she was fired once the Russians seized control of the peninsula and subsequently closed the company.
    A couple from Russia, however, had a different experience following the annexation. Bizet said they moved to Sevastopol to open Atmosphera, an entertainment business offering all kinds of games and activities.
    "They decided to come to Crimea because it's sunny, because it's new, because you can do business and Moscow is too expensive, Moscow is too crowded," Bizet said. "They came to Sevastopol without the perception that it was Ukraine before."
    Bizet had never been to Crimea before, so he is not exactly sure if what he witnessed during his visit is widely dissimilar to what he would have seen prior to the annexation.
    Have people from Russia always flocked to Crimea for vacation? Or have Russians only recently become more eager and able to see their country's recently seized territory? It's hard to say with certainty, and tourism studies and statistics appear more conflicting than they are convincing.
    Nonetheless, Bizet describes what he saw in Crimea as "patriotic tourism." This notion was particularly evident when he went to Sevastopol. The seaside port is militarily significant, and it is where Russia's Black Sea Fleet has been stationed ever since the Soviet era.
    Bizet said Russian tourists enjoyed seeing their country's military fleets there, perhaps more so now considering everything that has happened.
    "They feel proud of it," he said.
    Various sights in Crimea reminded him of Russia's past, from the outdated cable car equipment to the clothing people wore. In photo No. 2, for instance, a man is wearing a T-shirt with a hammer and sickle symbol and "CCCP," the Russian abbreviation for the Soviet Union.
    The French photographer ultimately decided to call his photo series, "Crimée, vacances à la Russe." He says it means something along the lines of "Crimea, vacation the Russian way."
    "What I felt is that it's definitely a Russian holiday, Russian country," Bizet said.