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23 May, 2012  ▪  Anna Kalenska

Hospitality Triumphs Over Greed

Many Ukrainians are willing to host foreign football fans at their homes for free

Hotels in Ukrainian Euro 2012 host cities have raised their prices three- to tenfold leading up to the tournament. In Kyiv, offers priced at UAH 30,000 have become commonplace. A three star hotel offers rooms for nearly €400 instead of the usual €80. Landlords have followed suit, renting three-room apartments in Donetsk “Khrushchevkas,” low-cost concrete-block apartment buildings, for €1,500. Even a suite at the famous Burj Al Arab in Dubai costs less. Outraged, the Western media quoted UEFA President Michel Platini as stating that “bandits and crooks” were the reason for soaring prices in Ukraine.   

Until then, the government had been reluctant to act. The fact that hotel speculators have been ignored for so long is because the owners of most four- and five-star hotels in Ukraine represent big businesses that sponsor the ruling party. The Antimonopoly Committee promised the public that it would impose fines worth 10% of annual income on hotels whose prices skyrocketed. As the championship draws closer, hotel prices have indeed been reduced slightly. Yet, rather than resulting from a fear of fines, this was influenced more by a lack of demand for foreign tourist lodging, which fell drastically short of expectations. The hotel price gouging scandal prompted many fans to think twice before going to Ukraine for Euro 2012.

Unlike the government and hotel owners, common Ukrainians are willing to save Ukraine’s image in deed rather than in words, inviting foreign fans to stay at their homes for free. The “Welcome to Ukraine - Ласкаво просимо до України” Facebook page allows Ukrainians to post their offers and foreigners to find hosts. It took just a few days for nearly 500 members to take part. Eventually, a new website called rooms4free.org.ua was set up that offers lodging in other places in addition to championship host cities, and not only during the tournament. Community activists have been promoting the site on European football fan forums.

WELCOME TO UKRAINE

Ihor Pylypchuk, a Kyiv resident and one of the movement’s initiators, volunteered to invite European visitors free of charge. His 15-year old son, a true football fan, met a boy from Valencia on an online football forum. The Spanish team will play in Poland but it is most likely to get to the semi-finals, therefore its fans will have to go to Ukraine. The Valencia-based fan looked up hotel prices in Kyiv and found nothing cheaper than €300-400. “That’s primitive speculation,” Pylypchuk laments. “The huge flow of tourists just fuels the appetites of those looking for quick and easy money. What impression will this give foreigners? What will they think of us?” He did not hesitate to invite the Spanish fans to stay at his place for the tournament.

The German press has been buzzing the most about problems with the championship’s preparations. Jochen Gößmann of the Berlin-based B.Z. tabloid is interested in Ukraine not only as a journalist, but also as a fan of football and Eastern Europe. His wife is from Almaty, Kazakhstan, so she speaks Russian and Jochen is learning it, too. Given their linguistic trump card, they thought attending the championship would be simple. While planning the trip, though, they found it difficult to find lodging. “It’s just insanely expensive,” Natalia shares. “But our friends helped. We’ll stay at a colleague’s place in Lviv and a friend’s place in Kyiv.” The “Welcome to Ukraine” community helped them find a place to stay in Kharkiv.   

THE ART OF HOSPITALITY  

Viktor and Viktoria Skliarovy, the Kharkiv couple that invited the Gößmanns, have already hosted the owner of a Dutch tourist agency and a couple from Germany. A guide and ethnographer, Viktoria previously visited the US through a cultural exchange programme. She lived in Kharkiv’s sister city, Cincinnati, for one month and stayed with two families there for free. “I remember that month as the happiest time in my life,” she recalls. “I learned so much about them and told them about my country and our traditions. I taught them to cook Ukrainian dishes.” She joined “Welcome to Ukraine” immediately and volunteered to hold two free workshops. The first one will help people who learned English in the past to remember some language basics, like giving foreigners directions to the stadium or interesting sights in Kharkiv. The other workshop will be called “The Art of Hospitality.” “I want to teach about how people communicate in different countries,” Viktoria said of the class.

She and her husband spoke with the Gößmanns on Skype regarding their travel plans. “We’ll show them around town on the first day,” Viktoria explains. “Then we’ll go on a small shopping tour or travel to Skovoroda’s well at the Babayiv Forest, and watch the game that evening. On the third day, we’ll have a cooking workshop. I’ll teach them how to cook our authentic food—probably buckwheat and mushroom holubtsi (cabbage rolls).”   

OPEN DOOR SEASON

Some of the hospitable Ukrainians willing to host foreigners at their homes have been less lucky. Retiree Serhiy Ovcharenko goes online every day waiting for messages from European fans. He lives in a four-room apartment with his wife, son and mother, in Horlivka, a town 30-minutes from Donetsk by bus. He plans to give two rooms to European fans, although his worry is that one room has no television or air conditioner and Europeans might dislike the living conditions. “Most Ukrainians are average hospitable people,” he says. “I don’t mind European fans coming and staying at my place. The championship will last only two weeks, anyway. They can stay here, no problem.” Serhiy speaks a little French and German, but no English. His neighbor is a teacher of French so he can use her as an interpreter if necessary. “I’m embarrassed by the oligarchs seeking to make a fortune off of everyone and everything. I’m embarrassed for my country. I’m not a fan of football, I’m a fan of my country,” he explains.

SUITE LIFE IN KYIV

“The bedroom has a king-sized bed and a large couch. Located on the sixth floor with a view of the national opera house, the suite features a skylight, a huge triangular bathtub and marble floor, and is soundproof. It is equipped with everything you might need, from a washing machine to a teakettle. You can have English or continental breakfast served in your room, and a special vegetarian or diet menu cooked for you,” goes the apartment advertisement. On the day of the Sweden-England game, it will cost UAH 13,000 (ar. €1,280 or $1,625) per night for two people or UAH 28,000 (ar. €2,760 or $3,500) for three. 


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