Ukraine’s cash-strapped military has been looking long and hard for fresh sources of revenue — and hit upon a whole new brand of tourism.
In what it says is a first in the former Soviet Union, Ukraine’s armed forces are throwing open 11 military training grounds and three air bases, inviting fee-paying tourists, and offering them the chance to play soldiers.
From AK-47 assault rifles to T-72 tanks and Mig-29 fighter jets, Ukraine is offering anyone with money to burn the opportunity to fire, drive and fly the same military equipment that during the Cold War was on hair-trigger alert for a NATO attack.
“Today’s tourists are hard to surprise with anything, so we decided to offer something really spicy — military tourism,” said Hryhory Zhorov, the head of the Alaris travel agency which, with arms exporter Ukrspetsexport and the Defense Ministry, is organizing the project.
He said they hoped to accommodate 1,000 well-heeled travelers every month. Flanked by senior generals, Zhorov showed reporters around one of the bases, Desna, 40 miles northeast of the capital, Kiev.
The generals spared no effort, as well as cartridges and artillery rounds, to impress an army of invited reporters in order to promote the sprawling base, covering an area of 810 square miles.
Shoot Anything, For a Price
Armored vehicles roared through picturesque pine groves, which echoed to a thunder of small arms fire.
One young woman journalist stunned officers by driving a modern T-80 tank after only brief instructions.
“It was great! I had never driven even a car, but today I drove a tank!” she said, emerging from the turret of the 1,200-horsepower monster.
But the freebie was soon over, and future excursions to Ukrainian military sites will cost each traveler a tidy sum.
Alaris’ Web site (www.alaris.com.ua) says a one hour flight as a co-pilot in the supersonic fighter Mig-29 will cost $8,500, while one of the same duration in the Su-27 ground attack jet will be $9,600.
Surface weapons are also expensive. It costs $400 to drive 4 miles in a T-72 battle tank, or $250 to test drive the BMP-2 armored personnel carrier.
A shot from a sniper rifle will cost “just” $20, while a round for a Soviet-made RPG-7 hand-held grenade discharger is a more expensive thrill at $50 per shot.
Live Like a Rank-and-File Soldier
Zhorov said that despite the high prices Alaris had already received many requests from potential tourists from all over the world, including the United States, Germany and Britain.
He said a program dubbed the “extremely ascetic life of a rank-and-file soldier” was most popular with prospective clients.
The holiday mimics the daily routine of a Ukrainian private — getting up at 6:30 a.m., doing morning exercises and sharing frugal meals with ordinary soldiers before embarking on their daily chores.
“The age of our potential clients ranges from 20 to 53,” Zhorov said. “They include former military servicemen or people who have never heard about armed forces, but wish to escape from the monotony of life for one or two weeks.”
Alaris says only the physically and mentally sound may join its different programs, and each future participant has to pass medical tests, and undergo checks by the security forces.
From Cold War to Cold Cash
The offbeat idea of the whole project is founded on some harsh financial realities for Ukraine, which ranked as the world’s third biggest nuclear power before it gave up atom bombs in exchange for energy supplies during the mid-1990s.
What was the southwest front line of the Soviet Union is now struggling to feed and clothe an army of 400,000 — which had been slashed by half from 800,000 when Ukraine gained independence in late 1991.
The country of 50 million had originally planned to spend a meager 2.4 billion hryvnias ($441.3 million) on its army this year, including some 900 million hryvnias that the defense ministry had to earn “by various repair and transport services.”
The military complains that the army does not receive even that amount, saying only 60 percent of the earmarked funds actually end up on its budget.
“We were forced to seek unusual ways to earn money and are now laying our hopes on military tourism,” said Lt.-Col. Yury Dumansky, deputy commander of the Desna training ground.
“We need to earn additional funds to maintain arms and preserve fighting efficiency,” he said.
Officials decline to give exact forecasts for how much the tourism program may fetch, but agree that only very wealthy people can afford it.
They also say military tourism will help promote Ukrainian arms on international arms markets where former imperial master Russia has managed to occupy a much more prominent place.
“We have to use every chance to promote our arms,” said Heorhiy Mazurov, head of Ukrspetsexport’s regional department.
“We also want to show that our armed forces exist and are able to defend the country.”