Travel company offers guided tours of Ukraine amid war 1:03
Visiting Ukraine right now, to experience what it's like to live in the middle of a war, see its cities bombed, feel the danger and meet its fighters is probably not on anyone's bucket list.
But six months after Russia launched its invasion of the country, unleashing a wave of death and destruction in its wake, one organization is inviting tourists to visit Ukraine.
The online platform Visit Ukraine.Today last month launched guided one-day tours of so-called "Brave Cities" that have defied and continue to resist Russia's onslaught, giving tourists a glimpse of how the country lives in the midst of conflict. .
"Go on an adventure to amazing Ukraine now," implores the tour agency's website.
Despite international alerts warning of travel to Ukraine, the company says it has sold 150 tickets so far, while its website, which offers information on traveling safely to and from Ukraine, garners 1.5 million tickets. visits per month, 50% more than before the invasion.
The website claims that anyone who signs up for the guided tours can expect to walk through bomb rubble, buildings, cathedrals and stadiums, as well as torched military equipment, as well as experience the regular screech of air-raid alerts.
Land mines are also a possible risk.
Although it may seem like a macabre way to spend the holidays, Visit Ukraine founder and CEO Anton Taranenko tells CNN Travel it's not the same as "dark tourism" that sees visitors flock to other places of death, disaster and destruction around the world.
Taranenko says that the visits represent an opportunity for Ukraine to highlight the rebellious spirit of its citizens, as well as to show the outside world that life goes on, even in a war.
Live life come what may
Visit Ukraine.Today encourages foreign travelers to travel to Ukraine.
"It's not just about the bombs, what's happening in Ukraine today is also how people are learning to live with war, to help each other," he says.
"There is a real change, a new spirit in the streets."
"Perhaps across the street from a recent bombing, you'll see friends eating a good old-fashioned meal at a reopened bistro."
"We are happy for a few moments, there is not only the bad and sad as seen on television. Life goes on and there is hope that soon all this will end. The children are growing up, we try to live life as much as possible no matter what happens".
The US State Department currently has a "Level 4: Do Not Travel" advisory on Ukraine due to the Russian invasion and urges all US citizens to leave the country immediately and warns that following the suspension of operations in its Embassy of Kyiv, cannot offer consular assistance.
Other countries have issued similar alerts.
The UK Foreign and Development Office warns there is a "real risk to life" from attacks on cities and regions.
Nonetheless, Taranenko urges people to visit the country.
"If you want to see our cities destroyed and brave people fighting, please come now," he says.
But, he adds, visitors should be aware that nowhere in Ukraine is 100% safe, although having a guide will help mitigate the danger.
"We regularly check the situation so we can control the different levels of security," he says, noting that many Ukrainians have now returned to the areas they initially fled due to the invasion, notably the capital Kyiv.
"Ukraine is rising again, people are returning to cities, municipalities are starting to rebuild, cities are recovering from the horrors, and there are a million foreigners in the country. Kyiv is now the most visitable and safe place Taranenko says.
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Discovering the country, he adds, means looking into the eyes of Ukrainians whose lives have changed forever, but who live waiting for victory.
Visit Ukraine has been appreciated by the Government for its work in supporting the war-affected country's decimated tourism industry and for providing information to help citizens coming and going.
But there is no official approval for his current visitor promotion campaign.
"Now is not the right time to visit the country, but when we win and the war is over, we will invite people to visit Ukraine," Mariana Oleskiv, president of Ukraine's State Agency for Tourism Development, told CNN.
"At the state level we want Ukraine to be open for tourism, but for this we need more weapons, we need to win and stop the war. Our official position is to visit Ukraine when it is safe to do so, maybe next year it will be possible, I hope."
Oleskiv said domestic tourism had resumed in Ukraine, reaching up to 50% of pre-war levels despite the fighting, but that it was too early and too risky for foreigners to come.
He suggested that tours could be purchased as a way to support the tourism industry.
"Like rolling a dice"
Foreign governments have warned their citizens not to visit Ukraine.
Although martial law has been implemented in Ukraine and air traffic has been suspended, Taranenko says that foreign visitors can still enter and exit overland quite easily, passing through checkpoints in the east of the country with Europe.
Although it is possible to travel, independent travel safety experts warn against it.
Charlie McGrath, owner of Objective Travel Safety, a UK-based company that trains people for war zones, says even areas of Ukraine that appear safe can pose a real risk.
"I urge extreme caution due to continued random Russian attacks," he tells CNN.
"Although the far west of Ukraine is relatively safe and life seems to go on, the southeast is much more dangerous. It would be like rolling a dice."
McGrath says visitors would need assurances about the protection they'll be offered on tours and know what happens if they're injured or their guide dies.
He also wonders what local hospitals and resources might be involved.
"I would recommend not doing it," he adds.
These are the top 10 cities in Ukraine that have been occupied by Russia
Taranenko says that, regardless of the risks, there is a desire to visit Ukraine.
Of the 150 tickets sold so far, 15 have been to Americans, she says.
Tour groups will be limited to groups of 10 people.
Participants will meet their guide at pick-up points and will be instructed on how to act in the event of a critical situation, such as where to take shelter if air-raid sirens sound.
"Having a guide who knows the place and the exact direction to take is a guarantee," he says.
"If you venture on your own 10 meters to the left, or 10 meters to the right, you can end up on a mine or a bomb."
"For example, in the Bucha area there are forests with bombs still activated that can explode at any moment."
Ukrainian authorities are also urging visitors to stay away until the war is over.
Day tours last between 3-4 hours but can be extended based on requests.
The company claims that profits from all ticket sales go to support war refugees.
Oleksii Vlasenko, 32, a Kyiv-based business travel entrepreneur, told CNN that he attended one of the tours in July, visiting several cities damaged by the conflict.
He said that although he did not face any apparent danger during the journey, there was an inherent danger.
"Of course there is always a risk as the war goes on, but I think it's different now," he said.
"People are interested in traveling to see the destruction after the war. However, I would not recommend the trip to women and children, but to young men, why not? In Kyiv, Lviv, Bucha, Irpin, now it has life has returned to normal, despite the rocket alarms every day, there are no longer any occupying Russian soldiers".
Among the excursions on offer is a collection entitled "Brave Cities," which covers destinations such as "the strong and invincible Bucha and Irpin," two towns near Kyiv that were brutally attacked by Russia in the first days of the invasion.
The highlights look like a flashback to some of the conflict's worst headlines, with trips to bombed-out residential areas and damaged cultural treasures.
War-damaged buildings can be seen on Visit Ukraine tours.
Other city tours include "Persistent and Resilient Sumy", "Kyiv in a Day", "Lviv Sightseeing" and "Odessa, a Pearl by the Sea".
Some areas, such as Mariupol and Mikolayv, which are under Russian control or continue to be attacked by Russian forces, remain off-limits to visits.
Still, Taraneko is optimistic and hopes to invite visitors next year, when he says the war is over.
War in UkraineTourism