food / travel

Crimea's Tourism Question (And A Billionaire's Answer)

In Yalta, Crimea
In Yalta, Crimea
Aleksendra Mertsalova, Anna Pushkarskaya and Khalil Aminov

SIMFEROPOL — Crimea’s economy is built on two main engines: tourism and agriculture. The current unrest and pending secession of Crimea to become part of Russia could dissuade many would-be vacationers from both Ukraine and Western Europe. A serious drop in tourism numbers could translate into a serious hit for the peninsula's economy, which is something Russia is already working hard to avoid.

The new government here in Crimea had barely finished counting the votes from Sunday’s referendum before it started to get investment offers from Russia.

One of the first projects on the table: Ruslan Baisarov, a billionaire businessman from Russia's Chechnya region, says he's prepared to invest $330 million in the construction of seaside resorts.

Following Baisarov’s announcement, the leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadirov, posted on Instagram: “I just spoke with the leader of Crimea on the telephone. I informed him of the intention of several of our businessmen, including Ruslan Baisarov, to aid Crimea by investing in important projects.”

View of Yalta, Crimea — Photo: DDIMA

It’s not clear which other Chechen businesspeople are preparing to invest in Crimea, but one source said that it might include the co-owner of Moscow Industrial Bank, Abubakar Arsamakov. Bank officials were not available for comment.

Job promises

Baisarov explained to Kommersant that he plans to build a complex including 500 hotel rooms, a therapeutic spa with 200 rooms, a spa, a meeting hall, an amusement park with a water park, a marina for 400 yachts and a golf club. “Up to 40,000 people would be able to vacation at the complex every year, and it would create 1,300 jobs,” the businessman explained. Right now, most vacationers in Crimea are Russians — they made up 40% of the total of six million visitors to Crimea.

Baisarov said the complex would be built in the southeast part of Crimea, though he didn’t say where the financing would come from. Someone with knowledge of the project indicated that financing would probably come from Russian state-owned banks, which are already helping to finance a large ski resort that Baisarov is building in Chechnya with the help of financing from state banks and the status as a special economic zone for tourism and recreation.

It’s possible that this is exactly how Baisarov plans to finance the project in Crimea; even before the referendum took place, Crimean leader Sergei Aksenov said that the region could get a Special Economic Zone status when it became part of Russia.

“Any region could be developed through a Special Economic Zone, including Crimea,” explained Vadim Tretyakov, head of the government agency that oversees special economic zones.

Crimean officials are expecting that establishing a special economic zone there would attract investment for projects in the tourism sphere, including many projects that have been planned since last year.

The "Swallow's Nest" near Yalta — Photo: Vyacheslav Argenberg

There is nothing new about Russian investors coming to Crimea. Many private investors and companies own and operate hotels there, and even Russian Sberbank owns a therapeutic spa in Crimea, which it purchased in 2010.

Holiday plans

But if they build it, will they come? A tourism forum took place this week in Simferopol — called “Crimea. First Spring,” organized by the Russian Ministry of Culture. Anna Manilova, a senior official at the Ministry, explained that as part of the forum, Sergei Aksenov, Crimea's pro-Russia prime minister, had signed a bilateral agreement with Moscow to encourage more Russians to vacation in the coastal region.

The Russian Ministry of Culture has proposed three ways to support the tourism industry in Crimea: working with travel agencies to sell more tour packages to Russians for trips to Crimea; increasing school trips to the region; and changing the destination of company-paid vacations at state companies. “Instead of sending them to Turkey or Egypt, they will go to Crimea,” explained Manilova.

Sevastopol — Photo: Julien29

To boost student travel to the region, Manilova said that officials will be meeting with tour operators and Crimean partners to make it possible for children to stay in four-star hotels during their stay in Crimea, and to negotiate discounts. Preliminary reports indicate that up to $5.5 million might be spent on student trips to Crimea, with regional governments and other sponsors picking up the tab for the air or train fare.

Lowering prices has also been suggested as a way to save Crimea’s tourism season. Owners of small hotels have promised to give visitors discounts this year. “We have agreed to discounts of between 15 and 50%,” Manilova said.

If Crimea does join Russia, the tourism industry could get up to a two-year transition period, during which time it would continue to operate under Ukrainian law, explained a representative of the Crimean tourism agency. Another key point: Tourism industry officials say they are hoping to preserve the possibility for visitors from the European Union to visit Crimea without getting a visa.

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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