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Odessa – a wonderful city with an airport that’s a bus station

26 march 2013, 14:41
2

Odessa, the Black Sea’s most storied city, has long had the potential to become a great tourist attraction.

That potential revolves around it having a modern airport, however – and either the city fathers of Odessa or the national government in Kiev refuse to change the crackerbox, antiquated facility that’s there now.

I haven’t flown into Odessa for two years, but my Ukrainian friend Yaroslav tells me the airport is still a joke: old, cramped and with almost no amenities to make travelers more comfortable.

This makes me sad when I think about the jobs that a bigger tourism base could create for Odessa’s residents.

Ukraine’s third-largest metropolis boasts one of the best opera houses in Europe – the other gems being in Vienna and the western Ukrainian city of Lvov.

Odessa also has swimming and sightseeing on the Black Sea, a lively performance and arts scene and good restaurants and night spots.

I had figured when I first visited Odessa eight years ago that it was only a matter of time before the city, which has more than 1 million people, would become a tourism-based engine of Ukrainian economic growth.

The only thing that was needed, I believed, was better infrastructure – such as a modern airport and better roads – plus a top-flight international tourism promotion campaign.

When I learned that Ukraine would be co-hosting the European soccer championships with Poland in the summer of 2012, I thought there was a good chance the national government in Kiev would make major improvements to Odessa’s infrastructure.

Even though the soccer matches were in Kiev, Donetsk and Lvov – and not Odessa – I assumed Odessa’s infrastructure would be modernized to catch spillover tourists from the games.

Wrong.

I was shocked when I arrived several months before the European soccer championships to find that the Odessa airport was the same facility built in Soviet times.
If you’ve never been to that airport, you may think I’m exaggerating with this cryptic description of it, but please believe me, the description is accurate: The Odessa airport looks like an American bus station.
It consists of two large rooms – one where passengers wait before going through security and another where they wait after clearing security.
Yes, there’s a small coffee shop and a couple of small duty-free shops, but basically it’s a bus station.
Not only that, but the last time I was in Odessa, the airport was  using the same tired old metal airplane-boarding stands that I used on my first trip to Ukraine in 2002.
Those stairways were so fragile that a member of the air crew has to stand at the bottom to limit the number of those boarding the plane to eight at a time. Otherwise, the stand would collapse.
As I watched passengers lining up for their turn on the stand, I thought: “How much would a replacement stand cost – maybe $2,000? And they can’t come up with that kind of money for the airport serving the country’s third-largest city? It’s shameful.”

Odessa airport. ©RIA Novosti

Odessa airport. ©RIA Novosti

I contrasted the Odessa airport situation with the one in Astana.

Kazakhstan’s capital has a modern airport with a design that’s won international acclaim. And another airport is coming. The new one will offer mostly international flights and the current one mostly domestic flights.

 Astana International Airport. ©RIA Novosti

Astana International Airport. ©RIA Novosti

Astana also has a sparkling new train station, high-speed trains to Almaty and elsewhere, new roads to key spots and an autobahn to the resort city of Borovoe.

I know that Astana, with three-quarters of a million people, is Kazakhstan’s capital, and Odessa is not Ukraine’s capital. And capital cities often trump other cities when it comes to wooing government money.

But Odessa deserves better.

And, frankly, ignoring the city’s infrastructure is just plain stupid.

A top-flight international airport would help bring in many more tourist dollars to Odessa – and thus improve not only the city’s but Ukraine’s revenue base. Simply put, the money spent on a modern airport would be returned to the city and the national government many-fold.

So why haven’t the government brass in Kiev allocated the money to replace the Odessa airport? That’s the $64 question, with many observers speculating that the answer lies in corruption. But that’s another issue.

In the meantime, if any of you readers with ties to Ukraine know someone in Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich’s administration in Kiev, please send them a copy of this blog.

Maybe we can shame the powers that be into giving Odessa the airport it deserves.


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