Odesa Sees 'New Normal' as Blocked Air, Sea Travel Routes Cripple Economy

While Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine has left cities such as Mariupol and Severodonetsk in ruins, and others like Karkiv and Mykolaiv suffer nearly hourly bombardment from Russian artillery, everyday life in other major Ukrainian cities, such as Kyiv and Lviv, has returned to something approaching a pre-war normal.

The same can be said for Odesa, Ukraine's historic Black Sea port, where visitors can enjoy a plate of locally sourced cheese pancakes topped with thick sour cream and wild blueberries at a sidewalk cafe near an eerily calm Catherine's Square for the hryvnia equivalent of $4.

But there are few visitors to be seen.

Odesa city councilman Petro Obukhov, who finished third in the 2020 mayoral race, described what has become the "new normal" in his city.

Dyzangoff Odesa
A plate of Black Sea mussels sits on an outdoor table at Dizyngoff restaurant in Odesa, Ukraine on July 31, 2022. The Catherine's Square area of the city is usually packed with tourists on summer days, but the Russian invasion of Ukraine has drastically reduced the number of visitors to the historic seaport. MICHAEL WASIURA/NEWSWEEK

"Because of the mines, the beaches are closed," Obukhov told Newsweek. "A few of the clubs have opened up swimming pools, but those don't draw nearly as many tourists as a sea where you can swim for free — or, at least, where you could swim for free under normal circumstances. Before the war, people would come here from Kyiv, and also from Europe. Now there is nothing to attract them to Odesa in such numbers."

A nationwide curfew of 11 p.m. means that nightlife has essentially disappeared.

"Even the strip clubs are not working," Obukhov said. "It is perhaps awkward to admit it, but strip clubs are fairly popular in Odesa. Many men came from Turkey to visit them."

Odesa beach closed mines
A sign that reads “Caution: mines” is taped a beach on May 27, 2022 in Odesa, Ukraine. Yehven Zinchenko/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images

Now, however, the only way for potential tourists to arrive is by land.

"The airport had really been modernized; we recently added another runway," Obukhov said. "Last year Qatar Airways even opened up a direct flight from Doha. Now the airport is closed though, just like the seaport. In a good year, we would have over 150 cruise ships dock in Odesa. Now there are zero."

Ukrainian anti-ship mines combined with a Russian naval blockade have severed Odesa's main economic lifeline. While a recent deal brokered by Turkey and the United Nations offers at least the hope that grain ships might soon be moving in and out of the docks en masse, there is minimal prospect that fortunes will improve anytime soon for the city's second most important industry: tourism.

The effect of such isolation is palpable in the city's restaurants. Odesa is home to the bustling Privoz bazaar, a sprawling local institution where merchants peddle everything from salted hake fish to homemade Isabella wine. Local residents know how to choose and prepare fresh ingredients. As a result, they demand a high level of quality from their restaurants, and those restaurants often deliver it.

"We use only fresh, local ingredients, and we're suffering because there are no fresh deep-water fish coming in," Nika Lozovska, founder of the chic bistro Dizyngoff, told Newsweek.

"We can only get mussels and other seafood that is caught from closer to shore," she said, "because the mines prevent the fishing boats from operating."

Privoz market Odesa
Assorted salted fish for sale at Privoz Market in Odesa, Ukraine on July 30, 2022. MICHAEL WASIURA/NEWSWEEK

In addition to the curfew restrictions, which cause most kitchens to stop taking orders at 8:30 p.m., Dizyngoff's central location meant that it became stuck behind a downtown checkpoint until a few extra blocks of the city opened back up to public access in mid- July.

"We're very happy that we could open at all, but the only way to cover our costs is to make do with less," Lozovska said. "We had to cut down our menu, and we're operating with a limited staff."

"A lot of people are out of work, which means their budget for eating out is smaller than it used to be," she added. "At the same time, the price of everything is higher. Since we opened, our revenues are down by around 30% as compared to a normal year."

While the situation is obviously worse in Ukrainian cities closer to, and in some cases behind, the war's front lines, it is also significantly better elsewhere. Yuliia Kostiana, chief operating officer of cafes in Kyiv and Odesa, has witnessed the fall and rise of the capital's restaurant scene.

"In Kyiv, the recovery is going much more quickly," she said. "Wages there are rising, and more restaurants are opening and are looking for workers. It's almost back to the pre-war level."

The reality in Kyiv serves as a demonstration of what might be possible for Odesa after the Russian blockade is lifted, the ports are de-mined, and economic life returns to normal.

Unlike Western Ukraine cities such as Lviv, Kyiv was directly threatened by Russian troops in the early days of the war.

"Our restaurant in Kyiv, like most restaurants in Ukraine, closed on the 24th of February, but by the 26th, we were already back in the kitchen voluntarily cooking hot meals for civilians in need, for soldiers manning checkpoints, and for internally displaced people coming from the East," Kostiana told Newsweek.

"Restaurants had a huge quantity of available inventory, and we started cooking everything that we could before it went bad," she said. "We made buckwheat kasha with marinated salmon, because there was a lot of salmon, and if we didn't give it away, we would have just had to throw it out in two days."

After the Ukrainian military drove Russian forces out of the Kyiv and Chernihiv regions in early April, Kostiana's Kyiv restaurant, Kharms, continued donating meals up until the moment that there was no longer a demand for such services.

"After the 27th of June, we returned to business as usual," she said. "That was a very pleasant ending. We did everything we could, and the volunteer work concluded because there simply was no longer a need."

Kostiana remains hopeful her Odesa restaurant, Minimalist, will experience a similar revival someday soon.

"In Odesa there's the nuance that summer is usually the busy season," she said. "In the five years that I've been working the Odesa project, this is the most trying time for us, and that includes the period of COVID."