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Souvenir seller Liliya Voznuk, 33, says she's worried the Ukraine crisis will hurt summer tourism. Reflecting the political leanings of the region, the rubber mask of Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, is a big seller. / Filip Warwick

SEVASTOPOL, Ukraine -- The Crimea: Its mountains, beaches, villas and healing muds have drawn tourists for decades and make up a big part of the local economy.

And yet in spite of the turmoil of the past few days, some here say a Russian takeover could be an opportunity.

Cafe waiter Konstantin Solovev, 28, says the port city of Sevastopol already suffers from a lack of tourism infrastructure and is far below its potential. He hopes Russian money would follow the military trucks that entered the region over the weekend.

"We don't have enough investment ?? why are there no Russian investors?" he complained. "But maybe now all that could change."

Since Friday, unknown armed men took over key installations in this southern Ukrainian outpost, including the airports, communication centers and government buildings. These groups installed checkpoints on roads into the peninsula and monitored rail traffic headed there.

A pro-Russian leader has taken charge of the local government and rallies in support of Russia have popped up in key cities.

With the majority of the population ethnic Russian, that's no surprise, say analysts. Even so, some call it "madness" from an economic point of view.

The Crimean economy is 75% supported by the Ukrainian state: It gets most of its food, water and electricity from the government, says Yaroslav Pylynskyi, director of the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center, a policy research institute in Kiev.

That's because following the decay of the Soviet Union, almost all of its economy was destroyed by the ensuing economic crisis and never fully lived up to its potential.

"Crimea was unified with Ukraine after the Second World War ?? not because (Soviet leader Nikita) Khrushchev was drunk, as the Russians used to say in their propaganda, but because of economic reasons," he said. "The (Soviet) government wanted to put Crimea's post-war economic reconstruction on the shoulders of the Ukrainian republic."

These days, the two main sources of income for the autonomous republic are tourism and agriculture. Both will be harmed by the turmoil here, said analysts.

"And now, all railways and highways are blocked," said Pylynskyi. "Crimea has food for some time but where do they want to sell their peaches in summer time? If they block the railways, how do they want to send the peaches and some other spring vegetables to the rest of Ukraine? They can eat them themselves, maybe."

Analysts say that it is now, at the end of February, when tour operators and individual tourists book hotel reservations, typically with 50% downpayments. But this has come to a crashing halt.

And the end of May is the beginning of tourist season here. Meanwhile, the local government here has set March 30 as the day local voters will decide on the future of Crimea: Whether to secede, become independent or join Russia.

It is unclear whether the referendum will be held, or even whether such a vote is legal. However, it will deter tourists, says Pylynskyi.

"The main source of income of the Crimean population is tourism. In such a situation to arrange ?? not a war but discontent ?? is absolutely stupid," he said. "They have to understand they are ruining the Crimean economy with what they are doing. Who will send their children and grandparents to bathe in the sea in this situation if people are blocking roads with guns?"

Some locals who earn their living off such visitors wonder that, too.

Liliya Voznuk, 33, operates a souvenir stand on one of Sevastopol's leafy main boulevards. An eye-catching display has rubber masks of Russian President Vladimir Putin and ex-Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko as well as Batman.

She says people stop and laugh at the Tymoshenko mask though it's a poor seller.

"She's a very bad person," she said, echoing the Ukrainian politician's low standing in Crimea. "People stop, point and laugh but never buy her. But sometimes they buy this guy," she says of Putin who she says she supports.

She says that even though there doesn't seem to be any danger of war, she's worried that the political crisis will hurt summer tourism and her business.

"I just worry sometimes that nobody will come to Crimea," she said.

Contributing: Luigi Serenelli in Berlin.



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

Read the original story: Crimeans worry Russian takeover may be bad for business

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