Special Edition Interview with Ivan Liptuga, National Tourism Organization of Ukraine

23 March 2022

Editor's note: The text transcript of this interview below has been edited for clarity by both ATTA and NTOU and may not reflect the exact language of the video interview.

Link to support Ukraine: https://www.ntoukraine.org/ #ScreamForUkraine

ATTA CEO Shannon Stowell and a Special Edition Interview with Ivan Liptuga, National Tourism Organization of Ukraine

Welcome and Introduction

Shannon: So today I'm really honored to have a special guest here today at the Adventure Travel Trade Association, and who we have today with us is Ivan Liptuga, who is the president of the National Tourism Organization for Ukraine and I would love for you, Ivan, to just say hello to the audience and tell us a little bit about yourself. Where are you, and also how did you come into the role of tourism in Ukraine?

Ivan: Hi, Shannon. First of all, thank you for calling us and supporting Ukraine, in this difficult moment for our country and for the tourism sector. About myself – I'm in tourism all my life. I’ve got an education in tourism economics in the nineties. From the beginning of 2000, I started to work in a tourism company, and since that time I've spent all my life with this profession. My business career went through all steps from selling air tickets to management of a tour operator and sending tourists abroad and inbound to Ukraine.

Then, after 15 years of working in business, I decided for myself to spend part of my life for the government, and I was the head of Tourism Department in the Ministry of Economy, which was the central authority for the tourism sector in Ukraine. After 4 years I quit my role in the government of Ukraine, and since that time from 2019 I’m the president of (The National Tourism Organization) of Ukraine, which is a non-governmental and non-profit organization and our main activities are concentrated on networking of tourism sector, destination marketing, quality management, knowledge network and training, statistics, analytics and investments in tourism. We work with our destination management organizations (DMOs) on regional and local levels in all regions of Ukraine. It’s 24 different regions.

Shannon: Okay, and where are you based right now? Where do we find you today?

Ivan: I'm in Odessa. My family is here- I live in Odessa. It's a Black Sea port city and this is the biggest region in Ukraine. It's bordering with Romania and Moldova on the West, and Mykolayiv on the East side, closer to Crimea.

Shannon: Okay, well we have you here today because we want to hear what's going on, and also to understand better how we can be helpful as the adventure travel industry, watching what has happened has been heartbreaking for our members... our community around the world. I actually received some letters for you that I will forward on later- letters of support from people within our space. And every day we wake up and think- “This is just unimaginable”, and can't imagine how you are having to deal with it. So tell us a little bit about your reality. right now.

Ivan: Yeah as I'm in Odessa, here it's more calm than in the North and on the East of the country. Of course, it was unexpected for all of us,  we never thought that it can happen someday on all territory of our country. Even having this conflict on part of 2 Eastern regions in Donbas region, we of course, cared about that, but never thought that Russia can someday just invade the whole country with bombing by rockets all regions. Here in Odessa just today in the morning I had two rockets boom just few kilometers from my house, but of course you can’t compare it with what's happening in Mariupol, or in Kharkiv or in Kyiv suburbs-cities, which are totally destroyed. Thousands of civilian people killed, women and children, and it's unbelievable that in the 21st century that it can happen wherever in the world, and especially here between two someday brother nations. Ukraine as well as other ex-Soviet Union countries, had a lot of similar in ways of development. Like many other ex-republics, we have too many common things. More than half of the territory of Ukraine was always more Russian culture I would say. Yeah, we speak Russian, but it doesn't mean that we want to be part of the Russian Federation and part of the Russian regime.

And because of that, the huge mistake of the Russian regime was thinking that somebody in the Eastern part of our country or the southern part of our country wants them here, and this mistake brought them with this invasion.  What they see now and what we see inside of our country that since one month I think this is the real birth of Ukrainian nation, this is real union of all people, and it's unbelievable what's happening because all the military, the civilians, women, young men, old men, all work together to protect the country and almost one month we all fight on each level. Many territorial defense unions were created, restaurants are cooking in hotels accepting refugees from other regions.

Young men and different aged people just take arms and go to territorial unions to protect their cities, and this is what the Russians didn't expect.  They thought that they will get us just in 1 or 2 days, and it took almost one month for now, and they cannot get anything except a few small towns in the East.

Background on Tourism in Ukraine

Shannon: It's definitely been an inspiration to watch Ukraine bond together, and also it's attracting people from around the world to come, and even sometimes in some cases physically join up with you, so it is remarkable to watch from afar, and the bravery of the Ukrainian people is just on stage for the whole world to see right now.

So thinking about tourism, and I'm sure tourism is at a full stop. But where were you right before this happened as far as recovery from Covid- the devastation from Covid. Were you feeling like you were getting back on your feet, or not quite yet? Where were you as a nation tourism-wise?

Ivan:  Ukraine was the same situation with Covid, like all countries. Yeah, we were like on the same scale with the rest of the countries. But at the same time, you have to understand that for Ukraine, as for many other states of post-soviet territories, it was hard to promote tourism because of lack of infrastructure, lack of marketing activities didn't make us a popular destination, and it was always a challenge for our cities and different regions to promote and to compete with our neighbors like Turkey, for example, because Turkey, starting from 90’s, they had a program of investments in tourism and hospitality sector and they invested a lot of money in marketing of Turkey as a tourism destination. They developed the infrastructure lot. Georgia, since the Presidency of Mikheil Saakashvili, started to promote themselves as a tourism destination. But Georgia is much smaller than Ukraine. Ukraine is a big country the size of France with 40,000,000 in population, and I think that we always had lack of these marketing activities and investments in tourism infrastructure. So before Covid started and before 2014 we had about 25,000,000 foreigners visiting us. Half of them were Russians, almost 11,000,000, because we had very strong, economical, cultural, and just family bridges between our countries.

Since the annexation of Crimea, and the war on the East, of course, the policy between our countries almost closed these relations, but still, we had some visitors from Russia. Domestic tourism started to grow, and more people from Moldova, Belarus at that time, Romania, Poland. Our neighbors on the western side, they started to visit us, Turkish tourists, as well. 95% of our visitors were our neighbors, and if we talk about international overseas travel, United States, UK, China, other countries of the world, it was just a little. So we were working on marketing and promotion of tourism, because you cannot just make a lot of marketing without having prepared infrastructure and service.

And so what we did in recent years we were working on increasing the quality of standards, increasing the quality of our products, and slowly starting to promote Ukraine as a new destination in Eastern Europe, because we are an affordable destination. If you compare with other European States, is an affordable destination, because the prices are lower than in European states, and we have diversity of our nature and urban territories, and we could promote many things interesting, and our special hospitality and cuisine and culture and nature all in a combination of that, could attract new tourists.

But of course, you have to balance, because if you do a lot of marketing, but are not ready with service and quality, you will get an army of one-time tourists who will come and then complain, and especially now in fast information age, it can work against you. 

Shannon: Sure! Well, tell me this: Here you are. You have a huge responsibility for the development and marketing of tourism for Ukraine. What personally motivates you? What are you most passionate about for tourism and travel in your region?

Ivan: Ukraine is so diversified that we could do any type of tourism. We have urban tourism. We have cultural tourism. We have gastronomy and food tourism, wine tourism- a lot of wine regions, we have a lot of medical resources. Maybe not so highly developed medical infrastructure yet, but we have a lot of natural healing resources – salts and mads, which has potential for development around the medical tourism and health tourism. Skiing resorts in the Carpathian region, I mean we could develop everything, and in our marketing we didn't limit ourselves with some particular types of tourism. 

We tried to support all destinations, because our organization is responsible for helping destinations to build their products and to prepare their human resources and infrastructure for highly competitive international markets. For me marketing is just a cherry on the cake. We paid more attention on complicated things like quality standards. And that's why we have a technical committee on standardization. Now we have about 50 different standards in different types of tourism. We have a knowledge network. Because in Ukraine today we have 122 universities who have tourism and hospitality faculties, and we work with all of them, and try to cut the gap between theory and practice. So we work on these things, which are not very popular, maybe, but are fundamental. Yeah, it's just like fundamental for success in tourism, because you cannot have quick wins on that. You should work more deep for perspective. 

Shannon: It totally resonates with me and with the ATTA as well, regarding quality and standards those are so important for tourism to be done well. What for you personally, though, like you have a weekend to get away, obviously before current days of trouble. What are you personally passionate about? Where do you love to go in Ukraine? 

Ivan: Oh, I travel everywhere because of my position, I visited all the regions, and different regions are always jealous about when I'm promoting some of them or not telling about others. As I said in Ukraine we have two seas, for example, the Black Sea and the Azov Sea, which are also different, and when I travel around my place of birth of Odessa region, which has 350 kilometers of beaches of white sand and Black Sea is very comfortable for swimming because the salt concentration in the water is very comfortable for eyes, you can swim with open eyes. It's much more nice than the Mediterranean Sea, for example, or ocean water, and you know that's one of the wine regions. A lot of places for wine and local food in Odessa, as it is bordering with Romania and Moldova and it has history connecting with Greece, history with Bulgarian, Turkish, it's a mix of cultures, mix of cuisines and it's very nice to visit these authentic places in the region.

If you want skiing or adventure travel in mountains, we have beautiful Carpathian mountains on the western part of Ukraine. It's popular, not only in winter, it's popular also in summer, for example, last summer it was because of Covid, many countries were closed for Saudi Arabian tourists, and Ukraine was full of Saudi tourists- they came with families and in some Carpathian regions because they didn't come in summertime to Ukraine for beach resorts, or for swimming, because of their traditional, I don't know religious limitations, but they loved to come to mountains, and in some regions like Bukovel, for example, there were so many that I didn't see Ukrainians. It was all Saudi tourists! 

And we have beautiful cities. Some of them we had, unfortunately, like Kharkiv, is completely destroyed now.  It was a beautiful urban destination in the northeast part of Ukraine. Many universities. A lot of young people from many countries were there studying in universities.

Kyiv, of course, is beautiful- it's the capital, it's economical center. It's like Central Place for Ukraine – the main destination. Eastern Ukraine is famous for industrial tourism. We have mines and iron ore quarries which are popular for tourists who are interested in this industrial culture, and they tried to combine it with different types of art and creative industries in combination with music festivals, with gastro festivals in industrial territories for example.

So I try to travel everywhere and try to find unique places in each region of Ukraine, and I would say that Ukraine is so rich for tourism that all from 25 regions including.  Crimea region have big potential for tourism development. It's fascinating.

How Can the Travel and Tourism Industry Support Ukraine?

Shannon: If you asked me 3 months ago, “do you as the ATTA have any connections to Ukraine?”, I think I would have drawn a bit of a blank. But since this terrible situation has come upon you, connections have appeared out of the woodwork. What I had forgotten is one of our former team lived in Kyiv for 5 years, and she's very active right now, and blogging about the situation and helping connect people to resources. Two of our team live in Bulgaria, and one of those team members from ATTA has opened their home to let refugees come in, and then then it just started flowing. So, one of our members, that I just did a podcast with, his wife is Ukrainian, and they just got his in-laws who were elderly to Portugal and the stories are flowing all over the place. Now one of our media members is involved in flipping tourism (assets) in Moldova to taking in refugees (instead of doing tourism).  So I think there's a lot. of mobilization but I think more importantly, for the long haul is there's a deep new interest in Ukraine. Everybody is paying attention around the world, and I think there will be ongoing support for a long period of time. Obviously hoping this situation resolves soon and for the benefit of Ukraine. So that is, I hope, some level of encouragement to know that you have literally scores of millions of people around the world wondering what to do. A lot of people, including myself, a felt helpless at times to know what to do.

So the next question I have for you, and I’m hoping this can be instructive for people, is what help have you seen the tourism industry do that you think should be repeated or amplified? What can we do as a travel industry to be supportive to you? And I know that we're talking in the middle of the problem. And so I recognize this is a little early but we wanted to make connection with you now, so that we are also following along closely in your journey, and hopefully helpful at some point in it. So go ahead and share, and we'll share links later to any resources that you recommend, but what can be the travel industry do? 

Ivan: Yeah. Thanks. Of course, the main assistance now is coming from our neighbors, because as of today more than 3,500,000 Ukrainians left Ukraine, almost 3 and a half million- a majority of them are in Poland in Krakow City and other cities of Ukraine, then Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, Moldova, because every day trains especially from the eastern part, from Kiev, from Kharkiev, from other places, they go on the border and then people cross with their cars, and it's difficult for them. Just a few days ago we had a conference with Romanian SKAL (A tourism organization).

They had not so many like in Poland, but still they had about 100,000 refugees which is a lot you can imagine in some neighboring cities that this hundreds of thousands. Ukraine is a big country it's not like a few thousand refugees. Just a few thousand refugees coming to European states caused a problem and a lot of news about that. And now you can imagine that it's a few million and it can be more because, more than 3 quarter of Ukraine is still not in that bad of a situation, and people are still waiting if the invasion will go further. It's a huge problem for the whole European continent I would say, if all these people will run. 

So what we do, we as National Tourism Organization our members and companies and tourism sector. Of course, we are feeling helpless in military things. And now, when rockets are falling like a rain you feel helpless in this situation. But we try to do several things in supporting refugees by giving them help in transportation, or to the Western part of Ukraine, or further to European states. We are consolidating hotels and restaurants. We're helping the defense by feeding them for example, the defense unions, and we also promote campaign of stopping any relations with Russian companies because it's unbelievable that majority of population of Russian Federation support the regime in this terrible war because, as you know, all open and alternative information sources were closed. They don't have Facebook and Instagram and many other Youtube channels are closed, and probably from this week Youtube in general will be closed for them because of their inside restrictions. So people just listen to their propaganda inside of the country, and they support it because they promote the idea that Ukraine is a Nazi country and it's unbelievable that so big a country of 140,000,000 people can believe in this. It's simply unbelievable I don't know what they think about when they listen to this madness, what they see from their TV, and they trust them. And so we try to scream through all channels.

You see that sanctions now closed or stopped, blocked many companies, and they stopped work in Russia. But it's still not enough. Still, not enough and the travel and tourism sector is one of the sectors which can knock on each door, to everyone who at least once in a year travel somewhere. Closing possibility for international travel, except domestic tourism in Russia, will influence each resident of the country. So we try to work through different channels and to explain what is really happening here in Ukraine. And we ask all our partners all over the world to scream about the situation. 

Shannon: Scream for Ukraine. I saw that- it's a campaign right now, right? “Scream for Ukraine.”

Ivan: Yeah, we did this campaign with World Travel Network it's CEO Juergen Steinmetz from Hawaii, he's our partner and they help us a lot to promote this idea.

We still have some hotel chains who do not plan to quit their activities in Russia: Marriott and Hilton, and some others who prefer to stay neutral in this.

But there is no neutrality because next it can be other states in Europe, and we are fighting now for their safety and peace here in Ukraine! Nobody expected that Ukraine would stand for so long a time. But we are, and we just ask to close the sky above us, because it's really hard to protect our civilians and people in every city from rockets. And the second is to put more sanctions on the economy of Russia, because any business with Russia is financing this war. They have to stop the war! 

Shannon: Yeah, I'm glad you called out some travel brands that probably need encouragement from our audience to shutter in Russia. And help make the pain so much that there is good reason for Russia to stop. So that's something that our audience can do is talk to their connections. Talk to our politicians and encourage stronger and stronger sanctions. Two of our largest members, Intrepid and G adventures have both taken very strong stands, and in fact, the founder of G adventures came out and closed all Russian tours, and even went to the point of removing all Russians from outbound itineraries, and you know, he acknowledged that he realizes some of those Russians may not be for the war but he's making the decision to inflict as much pain as he can to try to cause change, and I think it's appropriate. So know that we stand with you as the ATTA. We're taking many different actions in different directions. It still feels a little helpless just because the scale of the problem, but if everybody is doing a little piece hopefully, it moves the right direction eventually.

We’ve done some work in the past with some destinations who have gone through hard times and that's something I'll look forward to talking to you about in the future. Trying to bring assistance wherever we can as rebuilding happens. I have to believe and hope that this is going to end, and I know that a lot of damage has already been done and more will be and there's just no good way to look at that. But know that we're here for you now, and we will be here for you later, as well.

Ivan: Yeah, thank you. Thank you Shannon for this. I have to say that United States gives support to Ukraine on all levels, and we feel that and from the US Senate and the President it's a lot of things in the military level and political level and economical level and sanctions. Our organization, NTOU works under the support of USAID for a few years already now, and all the things we did in standardization and knowledge and other things were supported by USAID.

But United States inspired us for many things, and what I would love to have is closer links. I hope and pray and believe in victory in this terrible war, and someday of course it will end. I hope we will not become part of Russia, and after that, and we will stay an independent state.

In that case, I believe that Ukraine will get much more attention than it had before, and much more attraction and investment and tourism as well. And when this happens we would love to have much more common links with your organization and your members and invite you all to see how beautiful is Ukraine, and to start your business here, and to start your activities here as well.

Shannon: As well, absolutely. and in fact, I was part of a delegation that did something similar after the Arab spring back in back a few years ago, I think that was 2011, and Jordan tourism and Egypt tourism worked together and five or six of us who are the heads of associations in the United States in travel, we all came together to go and make an on-the-ground assessment, and be able to report back and say, You know the region is open for travel because there were so many misperceptions about where things stood and I anticipate a united front around the world of offering that when the right time comes, and we hope for your victory, too. I think the whole world is hoping for an independent Ukraine.

Ivan: Yeah, because this is a victory of democracy It's not victory of Ukraine against Russia. It's a victory of democracy over autocracy

Shannon: Absolutely, and as we're drawing to a close here, are there any last things you would like to say to our audience? Our members are in 86 different countries. Although my guess is, our readership is in almost every country. Any last thoughts that you would like to share with the adventure travel audience? 

Ivan: I want to thank all your members for their interest in what's happening here in Ukraine. We will be thankful for any support, and scream as I said, scream for Ukraine, because now you cannot stay aside, and keep silent and be neutral. There is no neutrality in this because this is war as I said, of democracy against autocracy and it depends now, the safety and security of the whole of Europe, and maybe the rest of the world. and it's very important that this victory should be an example to other states, that we are now fighting for our rights. On our website you may find links to support our activities for refugees here. I'm thankful to neighboring countries of course, who get the majority of these refugees now, many of people who lost their houses, apartments, families- they have nothing left and some of them will go further to Canada, United States, to Western European States, and of course we will be grateful if you could support them and help Ukrainians. Because it's many people who just have nothing now. 

Closing Words

Shannon: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. I think this is loud and clear and if you're okay. I'd like to read a letter to you from one of our members. I reached out to our ambassadors, we have about 70 around the world who represent ATTA, and some of them sent letters to me yesterday to forward to you, which I'll do later. But one in particular, I think, is super powerful and so I’d love to read that to you real quickly.

This is from a gentleman named Douglas Layton, and he operates a tour operation in Iraq. So a difficult destination for sure. Here are Douglas's words: “Regarding Ukraine- a word of encouragement to those who are enduring unimaginable pressure from this war. I've been leading tours since I was 24, I’m almost 70 now. 2 now half a century I've owned my current tour company based in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, which is Explore Mesopotamia, for almost 15 years, and have worked in Iraq for over 30. During my journey I’ve been through six wars, 3 epidemics, and this current pandemic, not to mention countless smaller skirmishes, including a missile attack by Iran a few days ago. 

This is a side note- Douglas also was on Saddam Hussein's hit list personally, and someone came to his home and shot rocket-propelled grenades into it. But he had gotten a heads up and had gotten out so he's gone through some very hard times in his career.

So back to Douglas- He said, I've learned 2 things about war and terrible calamities such as Covid, 1) people die, and 2) they end. If one is wise, lucky, or watched over by God and survive there's always an opportunity in the midst of the disaster if one looks for it. When the calamity ends if the right steps have been taken once can find that rather than destroying the dream or vision or business, it's possible to merge stronger than ever when I started my company after the last Gulf war. People thought I was crazy who would come to this region. A carefully constructed PR Campaign resulted in the region being named in the top 20 destinations in the world by National Geographic two years after the war. It was exhilarating. But then came ISIS and tourism flatlined. Start over. Everyone told me it was finished, so, knowing that war would end, I crafted the first comprehensive tour guide for the region- 400 pages depicting the beauty and unparalleled history. Really crazy was what people thought. How, however, we sold ads in the guide and convinced major corporations that the fame that the Kurds now enjoyed the modern equivalent of David fighting Goliath (which I’m sure rings true with you right now) could be used to spark investment in tourism when the war ended. We made more money from the guide than we ever did running tours and up to survive the war. When it ended our company prospered more than ever. The tourists returned more determined, undeterred from the quest for new adventures. Then came Covid, flatlined again. Start over. Companies everywhere laid off employees. I did not. I hired more and spent the downtime training. Thanks to grants and loans, I laid the groundwork to expand our business. Now that Covid is all but behind us we are experiencing a surge in bookings which we couldn't have handled if we didn't work behind the scenes during the dark times. Ukraine is now famous, standing as they can against “the bear”. The bravery of the Ukrainian people has brought admiration from the 4 corners of the world, just as it did for the Kurds when they stood against ISIS. This war is an unspeakable atrocity, which has cost the lives of many, and will no doubt take many more before it ends. But it will end. Take heart, be wise, survive- look for the opportunity. Our thoughts and prayers are with our fellow workers, though we may not know them, we've been there. It's not easy but those who pursue adventure in this amazing world are survivors at heart and comprise a community bound together by a bond that others cannot comprehend. This is not a rehearsal. Live life to the fullest despite the daunting obstacles. Perseverance wins every time. Kind regards- Douglas Layton.

I know that was a little long, 

Ivan: very persistent, very persistent. One by one repeat from the zero point.

Shannon: Right, well Ivan we’ll publish links to the resources that you recommend that our audience take a look at, and I just want to thank you so much for taking this time it's wonderful that our mutual dear friend Taleb Rifai connected us. Taleb is one of my heroes in life.

Ivan: Yeah, me too. 

Shannon: Yeah, I know. for many people around the world he is. 

Ivan: By the way, our organization was founded by him because we organized the conference on destination branding in 2016 in the Cabinet of Ministers when I was in the government, and Taleb Rifai was a guest as a secretary-general he opened, and it was 13 regions of Ukraine with him signed the memorandum on the creation of NTOU, and since that time it's working, and Taleb is our real friend. He we had several interviews like you and me now, we work through this World Tourism Network, and he's also a hero for me, because his tolerance and possibility to find right words in every country and for every people. He was, I think, the best Secretary General for such an organization as UNWTO. 

Shannon: He is truly a one-of-a-kind human being. He's so powerful and so wise, and yet so kind and humble. 

Ivan: So thank him to introduce you to me. 

Shannon: I will, Ivan. It's been a pleasure, and I mean it- we're here for you. Let us know any way that we can help.

Ivan: Yeah, sure I will and let's pray for the victory, and I will wait for you in Ukraine. Right next month after the victory, and probably we will organize your global forum of your association. 

Shannon: Let's do something I would absolutely love to come and visit you.

Ivan: Thank you very much, Shannon. 

Shannon: All right. Take care, my friend, and be in touch.

Ivan: Yes, stay in touch!  

Link to support Ukraine: https://www.ntoukraine.org/ #ScreamForUkraine