Nabeel Kensara and Nasal Alzamzmi, a couple from Saudi Arabia, used to go for holidays to Switzerland twice a year, but coronavirus travel restrictions across Europe have forced them to discover new destinations.
Ukraine, which only requires a coronavirus PCR or express test upon entry, is one of just a few visa-free countries for Saudi tourists.
Ukraine stopped all regular flights last March to prevent the spread of COVID-19 but in June resumed domestic air traffic and flights to foreign destinations.
Besides traditional city sightseeing, the country offers a variety of close-to-nature getaways - from the picturesque Carpathian Mountains in the west to the bustling Black Sea coastline in the south.
In June, Saudi national carrier Flynas launched a daily direct flight between Riyadh and Kyiv, bringing hundreds of holidaymakers seeking escape from the extreme heat. Flynas also offers connection to the largest western Ukrainian city of Lviv.
Out of 100 rooms in Lviv-based Bank Hotel, 60 are booked by Saudis, some coming for honeymoon, hotel manager Taras Kuzyk said.
Kuzyk said an unexpected influx of Saudi tourists highlighted areas demanding changes to serve clients’ needs like ordering halal food, translating menus into Arabic and extending restaurant's working hours.
Kensara and Alzamzmi came to Lviv after having visited Kyiv and the country’s biggest mountain resort in the Carpathians.
“It’s like other countries, it’s like Switzerland. It needs a little bit to keep up. But people here are friendly, prices here are good. And the environment and everything else is good,” Kensara told Reuters.
Ukraine’s state tourism agency called Gulf Arab states a promising area for the cash-hungry tourism industry hit by coronavirus. In June, it brought representatives of Saudi travel agencies on a guided tour across the country, introducing them to the main tourist attractions, local culture and cuisine.
“Saudis like to discover new places. We’ve been impressed by so many things in the country - nature, the weather,” tour manager Mohamed Almasoud said.
“We like the food. The food is like Mediterranean, more like Turkish food.”
According to Anton Taranenko from Visit Ukraine tourist association, 3,500 Saudis are expected to visit Ukraine daily comparing to 4,000 tourists in total during the entire 2020.
“We are seeing more customers in Saudi looking to do things on their bucket list, especially as they can now do some of the activities in unique locations within KSA. This includes diving in the Red Sea, Yoga and Mindful experiences are in higher interest and demand. Interestingly mostly in iconic place so the deserts of AlUla, on the shores of Ashar Lake in Al Ahsa or in the mountains of Abha of course all costing a little more in money and time to achieve. I believe that the opening of Domestic Tourism in KSA has done nothing but increase the bucket list of the Saudi traveler, who solely before was focused on experiences outside of KSA.”