Grabbing what you can, while you can
In the foyer of the Grand Hotel located on the banks of the Dnieper in Kiev, the cash tills are ka-chinging like never before. Welcome to rip-off Euro 2012, a free-for-all among the 'bandits and crooks', as Uefa president Michel Platini labelled those who are making a pretty penny and a few thousand more off the back of the tournament.
Checking the prices of all types of accommodation in the Ukrainian capital a week ahead of the final and on the weekend of the England v Italy quarter-final, I was shocked by the ad hoc nature of the price hiking. 'If you stay tonight, it will cost Euro780 [HK$7,599],' said the receptionist at the Grand. And next week - the final's weekend? 'We have no rooms available,' she said. 'What if you did have a room, coach class, the cheapest going , you know, one overlooking the motorway or steel works, the worst noisy view in the house - how much?' 'Over Euro1,000, perhaps more. ' 'Would that include breakfast? 'Nie.' 'And what about after the tournament?' 'Euro300 a night,' said the receptionist. I'll come back then, perhaps.
Granted, the Grand is the most expensive auberge in town. But similar sky-high prices are being charged all over Kiev at all grades of hotels and hostels, flophouses and fleapits. I poked my head into several to ask about a night's stay. All have risen their tariffs by well over double, some treble, a few quadruple. A dizzy few proprietors were reaching through the stratosphere and trying to grasp the moon, such was the lunacy fuelling their inflated figures. Even the campsites have entered in the grand collective delusion, asking over Euro60 a night for a small pitch. One I saw looked like a refugee settlement on the cusp of the apocalypse.
Even makeshift bunks in hastily erected tents and portaloos located in urban scrubland in Donetsk were going for over Euro75. 'All you want is a place to put your head but those tents are like a prison cell. It's depressing,' one England fan, Mike, said during England's game against Ukraine last week. Many choose to rough it at the airport or drink until dawn rather than insult their wallets and bones with an uncomfortable, overpriced night's kip.
There's something seriously wrong with your tourism strategy when you offend your guests in such a way they become raid visitors - dashing in and out for the main event. Much money is being banked by the bandits and crooks - but how much more revenue is being lost? Put on a good show and people will hang around, spending money in the cafes, bars, restaurants, and on taxis, buses and trains.
The hyperinflation saw Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych reprimand the hoteliers. Few have listened. Most are engaging in a price war among themselves to see who can mark up the most. Some of the prices are laughable. The price hikes are a response to the misguided belief the visiting football tourists are not likely to be returnees. Few, believe the Ukrainians, will be finding much vacation enlightenment on their footy tour, and most will not come back with the family. That might be true in the parochial coal town of Donetsk. England fan Mike moaned about the down time between games. 'There's nothing to do here. There's only the football,' he said. But Kiev's cultural gems offer much more stimulation, Lviv and Kharkov, too. The Polish take a longer view of the Euro 2012 impact. But in Ukraine, the motto is grab what you can, while you can. That said, most Ukrainians do not run hotels and they have been earnest in their endeavours to put their country on the tourist map.
Now into my third day in Kiev, I believe the nefarious few will not trash the Ukraine for the long term. Kiev is a perfect weekend break for Europeans - even a week for those farther afield. The capital has a feel similar to other European metropolises, with a cafe culture and bustling street life, dozens of museums, theatres, regal shopping streets and neck-craning architecture.
On the Kiev to Donetsk road, key battlegrounds of the Eastern Front jump out at you. But you don't have to be a history buff to be sucked into the thought-provoking past of this mysterious and unique Eurasian country.
If you booked long in advance you could bag a bargain, however. 'We have a hostel, three of us in one room, for Euro75 for three nights,' said England fan Steve.
I have managed to dodge the hikes because I am self-sufficient thanks to my compact and bijou Land Rover camper. Often arriving late at venues and with hotels either booked or ludicrously expensive, I have merely found a quiet car park to bed down in. And there's nothing like the smell of a newly opened packet of baby wipes to wake you up in the morning to undertake one's ablutions on the Euro 2012 road.