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In shock and despair, over 1,000 Ukrainian tourists in the UAE found themselves stranded overnight when Russia launched a full-scale military operation in the East European country on Thursday night.
Travel agencies said they are coordinating with the Consulate of Ukraine in Dubai to support the large number of distressed Ukranian visitors with low-budget accommodations, free transport, as well as flight bookings to nearby countries in Europe.
Sirak Muradyan, chairman of Sharjah-based Al Khalidiah Tourism Group of Companies, told Khaleej Times that the agency is offering all-inclusive accommodation for Ukranian tourists at two of its facilities, Royal Hotel and Al Khalidiah Resort, for a rate of $25 (around Dh90) a night.
Free transport is organised to bring in the visitors to the facilities.
The tourism agency is in talks with a group of hotels to facilitate affordable stays for financially-distressed Ukrainian visitors who are unable to return home as Ukraine closed down its airspace following the war.
Similar support has been provided by Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority that secured free full-board accommodation for existing Ukrainian hotel guests in the emirate until the end of the month.
Muradyan said the agency is dealing with a flood of 500 tourists who arrived to the UAE from Ukraine and Belarus before the war, noting that several government partners, including the Ukrainian consulate, are sponsoring some stays.
While tourists can stay in the UAE for up to 90 days, some will not be financially capable to cover their stay for that long, prompting them to look for shelters in neighbouring European countries.
Flydubai had temporarily cancelled flights to Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, prompting Belarusian citizens to return home from the UAE in batches through the national airline Belavia.
Other UAE airlines including Wizz Air and Air Arabia also suspended direct flights to Ukraine.
Arda Sever, deputy general manager at BTB Tour, said the company is assisting over 500 stranded Ukrainian tourists through arranging affordable hotel stays without any profit margin, changing flight bookings and providing free-of-charge transport and guide services.
"We have a great deal of experience in dealing with crisis situations, and we help our passengers overcome the hardship they are facing,” said Sever.
He noted that many tourists already left to other countries including Poland, Israel, Germany, Turkey and Hungary.
Sajeev Joseph, managing director of Holidays Tours Sharjah, said many Ukrainians cancelled their trip to the UAE over the past few days amid the ongoing crisis. “Other tourists who were in the UAE returned to Kyiv just before Russia attacked,” he added.
Speaking to Khaleej Times at Royal Hotel in Sharjah, where 50 distressed Ukrainian visitors are currently staying, Ukraine tourist Galina said she was supposed to fly back to Ukraine on February 24, the night the war began.
She was at Dubai International Airport when the attack happened. “I found out my plane was cancelled the moment I reached the airport,” said the 32-year-old who arrived to Dubai on February 19 for a one-week trip to attend her friend’s wedding.
Shocked at the news in the airport, she met a group of fellow Ukrainian visitors on a business trip, who were staying at pre-booked apartments.
“The building manager was Ukrainian and agreed to offer us a free one-night stay until we overcome the terror we faced,” said Galina, noting that some other tourists she knew booked flights to neighbouring countries to Ukraine to be close to home.
Financially distressed, Galina is currently contacting her friends in Europe who can offer her a stay until she can be reunited with her family.
Her parents and siblings have fled their hometown Odessa to the central region following intensive airstrikes.
When asked how she’s dealing with the current situation, Galina broke down in tears as she said: “I’m trying to stay calm and positive at this exceptional time, but I still cannot believe it.”
“I feel like I’m in a nightmare and I’m waiting for someone to wake me up.”
Arriving to the UAE for their honeymoon, Oleg and Jana Kryshtal did not expect the war in Ukraine.
“A potential war was the talk of our town, and rumours about the invasion date were going around that we even joked about it, but we never thought it was going to happen. We are in a state of shock,” said Oleg.
The couple was supposed to spend nine nights in Dubai, until their honeymoon was interrupted by frantic calls and messages from family and friends back home on the morning of February 24, informing them that the war has started.
Their families, who stay at Kharkiv — Ukraine’s second-largest city and a major target of Russian forces — are seeking shelter in underground subway stations.
“We are safe, but our families are not. Weak phone signals are also hindering our communication with them, but we are trying to stay calm and support them as much as we can,” said Jana.
The couple shifted to Royal Hotel after their scheduled trip has come to an end.
Despite the difficulty of planning their next step, the couple said their idea is to move to Poland although it’s far away from their hometown.
“To get to our family from Poland to the northeast, just miles away from the borders with Russia, we will have to face the dangers of crossing a large distance in Ukraine.”
Evgenia Melmikov, 23-year-old Ukrianian tourist, said she was in panic when she could not reach her father in Kharkiv upon hearing the news of the war. Melmikov, who arrived to the UAE on February 17 for a one-week trip with her mother and a family friend, said: "My mother woke me up in the middle of the night and told me there’s war in Ukraine.”
Hailing from a city close to the Russian border, Melmikov was aware her father was in danger. “We managed to reach him after hours of trying, and we still try to stay in touch despite the bad signal.”
Though her plan is unclear, she said the family now aims to find a shelter in Poland that has shown a supportive stance to neighbouring Ukraine since the war started.
“I wish I could go back to my hometown and see my father once again, but reality is that it’s best to move somewhere close until we see what’s next,” said Melmikov.
“It’s been difficult and confusing,” she said. “I lost the count of days and forgot that today was the day we were supposed to leave back to Ukraine.”
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