Twenty-five years ago, not-yet-Sir Richard Branson had a vision for Crimea, the ragged diamond dangling from "mainland" Ukraine. In 1989, an identical shade of red ink stained the map across a great swathe of the world: from Vilnius across to Vladivostok and from Murmansk down to Yalta. In that year, Virgin Atlantic started flying from Gatwick to Tokyo. At the time, the airline's fleet required a refuelling stop en route, which was in Moscow. The airline's founder sensed an opportunity for offering access to the Soviet Union's prime holiday resort; even back in the USSR, tourism was the mainstay of Crimea's economy. Now, it's worth $5bn.
Discussions came to nothing as the USSR started to implode. But once the ugly conflict is settled in Crimea, Sir Richard may look again at the prospect (though for the time being, package tours to the region are reported to be down 90 per cent year on year).
While the foreground of news reports shows the deep animosity between Russian and Ukrainian-speaking residents of Crimea, the backdrop quietly reveals a region rich in interest. Its description as "one of the most wonderful places on Earth" is courtesy of the Ukrainian Ministry of Health Resorts and Tourism. But independent, international endorsement comes from National Geographic – which last year led its list of "20 must-see places" with Crimea.
The southern part of the peninsula is warm, beautiful and rich in heritage. Rolling hills give way to a dramatic mountain ridge that extends around most of the peninsula's southern shore. Crimea is slightly bigger than Wales, but the concentration of interest in the far south covers an area roughly the size of Anglesey. Grand villas, rocky gorges and lush vegetation run along the coast from Alushta south to Yalta – where the historical repertoire commences.
In pictures: Ukraine crisis
In pictures: Ukraine crisis
1/12 Ukraine crisis
People shout slogans during a pro Russian rally at a central square in Donetsk. Pro Russian activists continued to gather on Saturday in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, as Russia was reported to be reinforcing its military presence in Crimea.
2/12 Ukraine crisis
In the same pro Russian rally, demonstrators show their support. Ukraine's ambassador to Russia and a deputy Russian foreign minister held a "cordial" meeting on Saturday, Moscow said, without giving details of any discussion of Russian-occupied Crimea.
3/12 Ukraine crisis
Crimean ethnic tatars stand on the roadside as Russian troops move towards to Simferopol in the settlement of Kok-Asan, some 70 kilometres from Simferopol in Crimea.
4/12 Ukraine crisis
Russian troops stand on a roadside in the settlement of Opytnoye, some 70 kilometres from Simferopol.
5/12 Ukraine crisis
Armed members of the first unit of a pro-Russian armed force, dubbed the "military forces of the autonomous republic of Crimea" march before the swearing-in ceremony in Simferopol, Ukraine. Some 30 men armed with automatic weapons and another 20 or so unarmed, were sworn in at a park in front of an eternal flame to those killed in World War II.
6/12 Ukraine crisis
A group of Cossacks march past a statue of Soviet revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin in Simferopol as tensions in the area continue to rise.
7/12 Ukraine crisis
An armed member of the first unit of a pro-Russian armed force, dubbed the "military forces of the autonomous republic of Crimea" signs the oath during the swearing-in ceremony in Simferopol,
8/12 Ukraine crisis
9/12 Ukraine crisis
Ukrainian soldiers load their armed personnel carriers (APCs) into boxcars in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv. Pro-Kremlin militia fired warning shots as unarmed foreign observers tried to enter Crimea on the 8th.
10/12 Ukraine crisis
An abandoned naval ship sunk by the Russian navy to block the entrance is seen in the Crimean port of Yevpatorya on March 8th.
11/12 Ukraine crisis
Ukrainian sailors stand guard on top of the Ukrainian navy ship at the Crimean port of Yevpatorya.
12/12 Ukraine crisis
Crimea's pro-Moscow leader Sergei Aksyonov speaks to the media in Simferopol on the 8th March. He has defended a decision to hold a referendum on whether the region should join Russia, saying on Saturday that "no one" could cancel the voting.
It was a quiet fishing port for centuries until rich Russians decided to winter here. After the revolution, Lenin decreed that every good Soviet citizen, or at least party apparatchiks, had the right to recuperate by the seaside. The resort is still an odd mix of proletarianism and flamboyance, and its name resounds as the place where post-war Europe was carved up by Churchill and the Allies.
Yalta is twinned with Margate, and – like the far east of Kent – the far south of Ukraine has strong cultural connections. Chekhov came to Yalta as an ailing consumptive at the end of the 19th century. The villa where he lived until his death in 1904 celebrates his life and work; he wrote The Cherry Orchard here, and entertained Gorky and Rachmaninoff.
The dining options have increased 1,000 per cent since the collapse of communism. For the most spectacular plate with a view, aim for the Swallow's Nest at Gaspra, five miles south of Yalta. An Italian restaurant is located in the Germanic castle that perches on a rocky outcrop over the sea, a grand folly.
Evidence of the folly of the Crimean War, which broke out 160 years ago, is easily found. Yet the battlefields beyond Sevastopol are largely untouched. The Great Redoubt at the Alma is still evident, as is the valley of death, where the Light Cavalry charged at Balaclava. At Inkerman, evidence of the slaughter still litters the ground.
Patrick Mercer, the MP and military historian, leads tours to the battlefields: "A bit of rudimentary scuffing around soon reveals shot, shell and shrapnel and, if you persevere, little pots of marmalade, bottles of English ale and even jars of bear grease to protect wind-chapped lips."
History in the morning, hiking in the afternoon and an aperitif by the sea is an alluring combination. In terms of Western holiday horizons, Crimea is virgin territory. And when a political settlement is reached, tourism will prove an essential element in repairing the damage.Reuse content