(CNN) — Visiting Ukraine right now to experience what it’s like to live in the middle of a war, see its cities bombed, feel the danger and meet its fighters is not likely to be on anyone’s travel bucket list.
But six months after Russia invaded the country, unleashing a wave of death and destruction, an organization invites tourists to come.
The online platform Visit Ukraine.Today, last month, launched guided one-day tours of so-called “Brave Cities” that have defied and continue to resist Russian invaders, offering travelers a look at how the country lives in the midst of the conflict.
Despite international alerts warning against travel to Ukraine, the company says it has sold 150 tickets so far, while its website offering information on safe travel to and from Ukraine receives 1.5 million hits a month, 50% more than before the invasion.
He says that anyone who signs up for the tours can expect walks through bomb debris, dilapidated buildings, cathedrals and stadiums, as well as burned-out military equipment, in addition to the regular wail of air-raid sirens. Land mines are also a risk.
While it may seem like a macabre way to spend a vacation, Visit Ukraine founder and CEO Anton Taranenko tells CNN Travel it’s not the same as “dark tourism” that sees visitors flock to other sites of death, disaster and destruction around the world.
Taranenko says the tours represent an opportunity for Ukraine to highlight its citizens’ spirit of defiance, as well as show the outside world that life goes on, even in a war.
‘Live life no matter what’
Visit Ukraine. Today encourages foreign travelers to take a trip to Ukraine.
“It’s not just about the bombs, what’s happening in Ukraine today is also about how people are learning to live with war, helping each other,” he says. “There is a real change, a new street spirit.
“Perhaps across the street from a recent bombing, you’ll see friends eating good old-fashioned food at a reopened bistro.
“We are happy for some moments, it’s not just the bad and sad things you see on TV. Life goes on and there is hope that soon all this will end.
“The children are growing up, we try to live life as much as possible no matter what.”
The US State Department currently has a “Level 4: Do Not Travel” warning against Ukraine due to the Russian invasion. It urges all US citizens to leave the country immediately and warns that, following the suspension of operations at its Embassy in Kyiv, consular assistance cannot be offered.
Other countries have issued similar alerts. The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Development Office warns there is a “real risk to life” from attacks on cities and regions.
However, Taranenko is urging people to visit. “If you want to see our cities destroyed and brave people fighting, come now,” he says.
But, he adds, visitors should be aware that nowhere in Ukraine is 100% safe, although having a guide will help mitigate the danger.
“We review the situation regularly so we can monitor the different levels of security,” he says, noting that many Ukrainians have now returned to the areas they initially fled, particularly the capital Kyiv, due to the invasion.
“Ukraine is growing again, people are returning to cities, municipalities are starting to rebuild, cities are recovering from the horrors, and there are a million foreigners in the country. Kyiv is now the most visitable and safest place” says Taranenko.
Discovering the country, he adds, means looking into the eyes of the Ukrainians whose lives have changed forever but who live waiting for victory.
Visit Ukraine has been appreciated by the government for its work supporting the war-torn country’s decimated tourism industry and providing information to help citizens coming and going. But there is no official sanction for his current push to encourage visitors.
“Now is not the right time to visit, but after we win and the war is over, we will invite people to visit Ukraine,” Mariana Oleskiv, president of Ukraine’s State Agency for Tourism Development, told CNN.
“At the state level, we want Ukraine to be open for tourism, but for that we need more weapons, we need to win and stop the war. Our official position is to visit Ukraine when it is safe to visit, maybe it will be possible to do so next.” year, I hope.”
Oleskiv said domestic tourism had actually restarted within Ukraine, reaching up to 50% of pre-war levels despite the fighting, but it was too early and too risky for foreigners to come. He suggested that tours could be purchased as a way to support the tourism industry.
‘Like rolling a dice’
Foreign governments have warned their citizens not to visit.
Although martial law has been introduced in Ukraine and air traffic has been suspended, Taranenko says foreign visitors can still easily get in and out by land, passing through checkpoints in the east of the country with Europe.
While travel is possible, independent travel safety experts warn against it.
Charlie McGrath, owner of Objective Travel Safety, a UK-based company that trains people for war zones, says even areas of Ukraine that appear safe can pose a real risk.
“I urge extreme caution due to the ongoing random Russian attacks,” he tells CNN. “Although the far west of Ukraine is relatively safe and life seems to go on, the southeast is much more dangerous. It would be like rolling a dice.”
He says visitors would need assurances about what protection they will be offered on tours and what will happen if they are injured or their guide dies. There are also questions about which local hospitals and resources would be involved.
“I would recommend not doing it,” he adds.
Taranenko says that regardless of the risks, there is an appetite to visit Ukraine. Of the 150 tickets sold so far, 15 have gone to Americans, he says.
Tour groups will be limited to groups of 10. Participants will meet their guide at pick-up points and be briefed on how to act should a critical situation arise, such as where to find shelter if air-raid sirens sound.
“Having a guide who knows the place and exactly what direction to take is a guarantee,” he says. “If you venture just 10 meters to the left or 10 meters to the right, you could end up on a mine or a bomb.
“For example, in the Bucha area there are forests with bombs still activated that could explode at any moment.”
Ukrainian officials also urge visitors to stay away until the war is over.
One-day tours last 3-4 hours, but can be extended based on requests. The company says proceeds from all ticket sales go to support war refugees.
Oleksii Vlasenko, 32, a Kyiv-based business travel entrepreneur, told CNN that he attended one of the tours in July and visited several cities damaged by the conflict. He said that while he did not face any apparent danger during the trip, there was an inherent danger.
“Of course there is always a risk as the war goes on, but I think it’s different now,” he said. “People are interested in traveling to see the destruction after the war. However, I would not recommend the tour to women and children, but to young men, why not?
“In Kyiv, Lviv, Bucha, Irpin, there is now a normal life, despite rocket alarms every day, there are no Russian occupying soldiers anymore.”
Among the tours on offer is a collection titled “Courageous Cities,” covering destinations such as “the strong and invincible Bucha and Irpin,” two places near Kyiv that were brutally attacked by Russia in the first days of the invasion.
Highlights read like a retrospective of some of the conflict’s worst headlines, with trips to bombed-out residential areas and damaged cultural treasures.
Other city tours include “Persistent and Tough Sumy”, “Kyiv in One Day”, “Lviv Sightseeing Tour”, and “Odessa: A Pearl by the Sea”.
Some areas such as Mariupol and Mykolaiv, either under Russian control or still under sustained attack by Russian forces, remain off limits to tours.
But Taraneko is optimistic that he will invite visitors there next year when, he says, the war will be over.