Moldova is often painted as small, struggling and stuck between the East and West. Its tourism industry was no different, at least until 2020. It has since borne the brunt of three global crises and has the battle scars to show for it.
In 2019, 174,000 visited Moldova. Wineries, historical sites and the breakaway region of Transnistria were the most popular attractions. Hotel owner Mark then had several hostels as well as the small hotel he still runs in the capital, Chisinau. They were full year-round, and a receptionist gave two sightseeing tours a week at €100 per person. Today the tours have stopped and the clientele has completely changed.
“60% of my guests used to come from the East and 40% the West. Now, 98% are Ukrainian refugees and the rest are their relatives, journalists, and men fleeing conscription on both sides of the conflict,” says Mark.
The only time it stood empty was during the pandemic. Like most businesses and individuals, Mark never saw a penny of financial help from the Moldovan government. When Moldova’s lockdown ended, domestic tourism boomed.
Moldovans “were spending money like it was their last day on earth”, states Danu Marin, a researcher on Moldovan civil society based in Chisinau. It was welcome business, if not huge. “Many were exploring their country for the first time, " Marin says, doing novel things, like visiting local breweries, nuclear bunkers and kayaking in regions they wouldn’t otherwise go near.
Among the few foreign tourists that came in 2021 (just 29,000) were Russian citizens seeking Western-made COVID-19 vaccines. The Russian-made Sputnik had little international recognition, which made travelling to the West a giant headache or outright impossible. But Moldova had vaccines to spare; just 41% of its population is fully vaccinated. There was a lot of disinformation during the pandemic, much of it from the Orthodox Church, which falls under the Moscow Patriarchy. One bishop even flew over the country in a helicopter to ‘bless’ the nation to ensure its protection.
The second crisis came in February 2022 when war broke out. Moldova closed its airspace and declared a state of emergency. Some companies, like the Hungarian Wizz Air, are no longer flying in at all. But its land borders stayed open, and being Ukraine’s neighbour made it an obvious destination for refugees. The UN’s statistics show 100,000 Ukrainians have since settled in Moldova. Marin describes the border situation as ‘a complete mess’.
The influx of refugees has exacerbated the demand for accommodation and housing, pushing prices up. Local students have been priced out of the housing market and Mark’s prices are now 40% higher than a year ago, just to keep up with the market and deal with the third crisis: skyrocketing energy bills.
Gazprom cut energy supplies to Moldova by 30% in an attempt to squeeze its pro-EU government. Much of this came through Ukraine, which also had to suspend all electricity exports to Moldova. Prices went up 200% and inflation sat at 34% at the end of last year. It now relies on Romania for 90% of its electricity, and the average Moldovan spends 75% of their income on energy bills.
Requiring extra income, the energy crisis is spurring another sphere of Moldova’s tourism industry, which has seen strong growth since 2019: sex. There are now an estimated 15,800 female sex workers in Moldova, with about one third based in Chisinau. Prostitution is illegal, meaning that its ‘sex tourism’ operates entirely underground and generally isn’t talked about in public. A former tour guide, Denis, told me: “You sometimes see foreign businessmen meeting girls in restaurants and nightclubs. But it’s ‘unofficial’.”
Most of Moldova’s sex workers operate independently. Certain hotels, saunas and ‘apartment girls’ charge ‘Johns’ (clients) by the hour. Hotels come ‘fully equipped’ for guests, as do saunas, although plenty work from home. It’s often organised through word of mouth, referral or on Telegram, but Moldova also has an active base of ‘content creators’ on Onlyfans and similar websites used for live webcam sex shows.
It’s hard to get exact figures, because such websites keep their data locked tight, but Onlyfans content creators make an average of $151 a month – no small sum in Moldova. A recent report showed a large number of Moldova’s sex workers are students, married women, unemployed, and even some refugees needing a stable income.
However, Moldovan Onlyfans users often aren’t visible inside the country and most sex workers live double lives, fearing the discrimination and the immense social stigma. One survey revealed that 88% of Moldovans wouldn’t want to be anywhere near a sex worker. It’s also extremely dangerous; many have been killed and experience violence. Act for Involvement, an NGO, also estimates that about half of all sex workers experienced abuse in their childhood or youth.
Moldova is being tested and its tourism industry has become smaller, more stuck, and a different kind of struggle as its population navigates the war. But its tiny tourism industry soldiers on and has adapted to the changes – though not always by choice or desirable ways. As Mark put it, “business is good, I can’t complain. But I don’t want to think of the reasons.”