As Crimea changes flags from Ukraine to Russia, publishers of guidebooks and maps must decide whether to play catch-up or wait-and-see on the coverage they give to the disputed Black Sea peninsula.
With the UK Government advising against travel in Crimea, and concerns about general security, it's unlikely that many Brits are planning their summer, or any other, holidays on the pebbly beaches of Yalta or Novy Svit. But for guidebook publishers, such as Lonely Planet and Bradt, both with Ukraine titles, and authors such as myself (researching the next edition of Lonely Planet's Russia guide), how to cover what's happening in Crimea is a pressing issue.
The fourth edition of Lonely Planet's Ukraine guide, on sale in May, was researched during 2013 and at the printers as the protests in Kiev led to the fall of President Viktor Yanukovych's administration and the turn of events in Crimea. Branislava Vladisavljevic, destination editor for the region at Lonely Planet, confirms that the company is commissioning an author to update the e-book on Ukraine and all relevant information on lonelyplanet.com. "We are monitoring the situation closely and responding accordingly, with coverage of the crisis and essential travel details for travellers considering visiting Crimea," says Vladisavljevic.
So fast have the changes been, that most online travel sites have yet to update their information about Crimea and Ukraine. Rough Guides' website doesn't note the FCO travel advisory in its online offerings for Ukraine, which the company covers in print in a chapter of its Europe on a Budget guide, published in March this year. Online guide, tryukraine.com, has some updates on its blog, while Washington DC-based National Geographic, which picked Crimea as one of its best trip tips for 2013, has decided to show the region on its maps as a "disputed territory", with accompanying explanatory text.
According to Moscow-based journalist Leonid Ragozin, who researched the Crimea chapter for Lonely Planet's Ukraine guide, the impact of Russia's annexation will be "massive". He expects around half the chapter "will be irrelevant within six months". Already, all international flights, bar those from Moscow, have been suspended to the region. Train and bus services, which transit Ukraine, are also affected as passport and customs formalities are yet to be worked out for what has effectively become an international border. Apart from flying, the only other way of currently accessing the peninsula is by the ferry to Kerch from Port Kavkaz in Russia's Krasnodar region, "which involves an arduous trip," notes Ragozin.
Visitors will need to be aware that the clocks are out of step with surrounding territories, at GMT plus four - the alignment of local clocks with those in Moscow, which involved advancing two hours, took place a week ago. The replacement of the Ukrainian currency, the hryvnia, with the rouble is already taking place.
Unclear at present is whether visas will be needed for tourist visits; while it was part of Ukraine they were not required for visits of less than 90 days. "The local authorities have said they will keep visa-free visits in place for Westerners," says Ragozin, but that appears to conflict with Russian rules that require visas for all tourist visits to its territory.
Such uncertainties are the reason why Adrian Phillips, publishing director at Bradt Travel Guides, is in no hurry to make changes to the company's Ukraine title, last published in mid 2013 and which isn't due for a new edition until early 2016. "It would be better if the guide was closer to its update cycle," says Phillips, who admits that there has been a drop in sales for the book since December. "But it's still very much a developing situation. Another week passes and any changes we might make would be out of date again. There's a danger in fiddling too much too early. However, we do make vital changes when a book comes up for a reprint, and put guidebook updates on our website."
Conversely, Phillips is quick to point out how Bradt is not "a big beast like Lonely Planet" and can thus be fairly fleet-footed when it comes to making publishing decisions. Bradt has carved a niche for itself, publishing guides to such off-the-beaten track and geo-politically sensitive locations as South Sudan, Palestine and Nagorno Karabakh, which is included as part of its Armenia title, even though the territory is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan.
"We were the first company to publish guidebooks to Kosovo and Bosnia," points out Phillips, "so we're no strangers to dealing with places where you need to tread carefully and recognise raw cultural sensitivities."
Would Bradt, then, consider publishing a separate guide to Crimea? "I wouldn't rule it out," says Phillips, "if it were to become a region for people to visit in its own right."
A small fraction of UK visitors to Ukraine (which numbered 80,000 according to FCO figures for 2012) make it to Crimea. A report by the Crimean authorities last year placed a high priority on improving the region's tourism image internationally - something recent events have undermined. He notes that President Vladimir Putin has committed to sending budget sector Russian workers to the region for subsidised holidays, as back in the days of the Soviet Union.
Regardless of which flag flies over Crimea, the region has much to recommend to a traveller. Both Ragozin and Marc di Duca, his co-author on the Ukraine guide, highlight Bakhchysarai, the former capital of the Crimean Tatar Khans, a town that has undergone a minor renaissance in recent years and where visitors can stay with friendly Tatar families.
Perhaps the biggest surprise for travel information publishers, particularly in this age of Google maps and other online cartography sources, has been the dramatic surge in map sales of the region. Jon Woolcott, buying and marketing director at Stanfords, says: "Sales of maps covering the region are three times what they were in the two months prior to what's been happening in Ukraine." He puts the increased demand down not only to journalists needing to get a handle on the area, but also the general public wanting to know more about a part of the world that they previously might have only associated with the Charge of the Light Brigade.Reuse content