‘You just have to open the door and help people’: Poland’s tourism industry aids refugees
By Ceylan Yeginsu
Tourism in Poland’s historic city of Lublin was in a deep offseason lull last month when Russia invaded neighboring Ukraine, sending tens of thousands of people fleeing across the country’s eastern border, about 60 miles away.
Suddenly, rooms filled up at hotels as busloads of bleary-eyed refugees — mostly women and children — arrived in the town’s center looking for food and shelter.
The crisis has local travel workers and companies in Lublin swept up in an effort to supply transportation, accommodation and food to ensure that every refugee is provided with decent living conditions when they arrive. Bus companies are offering free rides, hotels have pledged to provide temporary free housing and workers are rounding up basic necessities for refugees who often had to leave everything behind.
Their efforts are part of a huge grassroots movement across Poland — and beyond — as individuals and businesses scramble to raise funds, collect donations and volunteer their time to aid Ukrainians who have fled Russia’s invasion of their country.
“We have a whole army here, a network of hotel connections that works as a crisis team 24 hours a day, communicating fast with each other to check the availability of rooms and sending Ukrainians to one another,” said Marta Koman, director of the Arche Hotel Lublin. Arche Hotels, a Polish hotel chain, has pledged more than $1 million to provide free temporary housing for Ukrainian refugees across its 16 locations in Poland.
“Such help requires a lot of money, but these are special situations. I hope we will not have to escape also,” she said, referring to the prospect of the war spilling over to Poland.
Pitching in as translators and child care workers
The scene at the Arche Hotel is emblematic of the situation at large in Lublin and in other towns and cities along the Polish border.
Employees there have been thrust into new roles, working around the clock as translators and child care workers, handling logistics or simply providing emotional support for the arriving refugees. They say they are unable to think about the war’s effect on their livelihoods.
“I don’t think about tourism. You just have to open the door and help people,” said Anna Kurkowska, a server at the Arche Hotel Lublin. In addition to serving food to incoming Ukrainians, she is helping to watch their children.
Among the refugees who have been staying at the hotel: a group of children from a Ukrainian orphanage. The Arche turned one of its conference rooms into a playroom where they screened fairy tales on the television and played games like hide-and-seek and tag.
Witalij Proszyn, a server of Ukrainian origin, has also been working as a translator. He said many of the people arriving were emotional and under great distress, with the staff scrambling to help.
“I do not know if it is still a hotel, it sure is, but it is also now a single-family house,” he said. “That’s how I feel.”
Not all hospitality companies have joined the effort, and some hotels have raised their prices during the crisis. At the Hilton Garden Inn in Rzeszów, not far over the Polish border from the Ukrainian city of Lviv, rooms that were going for about $80 suddenly cost more than $200, according to the hotel’s website; at the Victoria hotel in Lublin, rooms that usually cost $40 to $60 now cost more than $140, according to its website. Governments have also block-booked hotel rooms and transport services for their staff, who often do not show up, which has caused accommodation shortages and contributed to price hikes.
In the Arche Hotel lobby, a Ukrainian woman was shaking and crying. She had been on the phone with her parents in Ukraine when she heard an explosion over the line and the connection was lost. She had not been able to reach her husband and daughter for more than a day, and was unsure whether they were alive. When Koman, the hotel director, approached her, the woman showed her pictures on her phone and said, “this is my home, this is my home,” pointing to a Russian tank next to her house.
“We are professionals, but also we are people who have emotions, feelings, and seeing these people in pain and being fully professional is really very hard, but I think you have to adapt to the new situation,” Koman said.
‘War stopped everything’
One month ago, travel operators and local tourism boards had started voicing optimism about a post-pandemic recovery, receiving inquiries from international group tours and business travelers interested in visiting Poland after a two-year hiatus. Tourists spent more than $110 million in Lublin in 2019, according to the Central Statistical Office of Poland. Now, many fear that the war threatens any prospect of a rebound this spring and summer. They are bracing for an uncertain future, even as their present focus is on the plight of refugees.
“The outbreak of the war stopped everything,” said Krzysztof Raganowicz, director of the Lublin Metropolitan Tourism Organization. “As a city and a region, we always lose when something disturbing happens beyond the eastern border of the country, even though it is completely safe in our city. Tourists prefer to choose places far from any dangers for a quiet vacation.”
As the war approaches a third week, some travel operators are exploring ways to assist refugees over the coming months. A local initiative run in collaboration with the tourism organization aims to start “guided city tours” to show newcomers core institutions of the area, including hospitals, schools and local government buildings. They also plan to organize cultural trips for children to local museums, galleries and other sights.
FlixBus, a German company that offers intercity bus service in Europe, has been offering free rides for refugees arriving at the Polish-Ukranian border. Free travel is also available for those arriving from Bucharest, the Romanian capital.
The Ilan Hotel in Lublin, in a building that once housed a yeshiva, was converted into a hotel by the Jewish Religious Community of Warsaw, which manages it. The hotel has blocked off all 40 of its rooms for refugees and is using its facilities to collect household items that will help them get settled.
“We are from a completely different industry, but at the moment we are fully focused on helping refugees,” said Agnieszka Kolibska, the hotel manager. “At the beginning, it was about immediate help for a few days, but now, we are also thinking about long-term help like finding jobs for people.”
“They really need everything from panties to socks and shoes, because the suitcases they had with them had to be left because there was no space in the train for their bags,” Kolibska said. “It’s not like they come with a suitcase and bags. They have two buns in black plastic bags and that is it.”
Sending help from farther afield
Larger travel companies have also joined the effort to offer facilities and services to refugees. Airbnb, in partnership with its nonprofit arm Airbnb.org, has been working with hosts to supply free temporary housing for up to 100,000 refugees fleeing Ukraine to neighboring countries like Poland, Hungary and Romania.
Thousands of people around the world have also booked and paid for Airbnbs within Ukraine, with no plans to travel there, in efforts to send money to Ukrainian homeowners. Between March 2-3, more than 61,000 nights were booked in Ukraine, 34,000 of them by people in the United States, the company reported.
Paige Holden, 43, an interior designer from Los Angeles, was at first skeptical about the initiative, concerned that if she booked an Airbnb property the hosts would not be able to access the funds. But after reaching out to some of them and seeing their desperation, she immediately booked an apartment in a Kyiv property, which sent $4,700 to a family of five.
“After I sent out an inquiry, a woman in Kyiv sent me a picture of her three young children, huddled in a cold, dark basement filled with other distraught families,” Holden said.
“You have to remember that these people lost everything overnight, their homes, their incomes. They have nothing left but to fight for their lives,” she said.