Pandemic hits tiny Moldova’s hopes for wine tourism boom

The vast underground cellars of Moldova’s Cricova winery used to echo with the sounds of hundreds of visitors. Now just a handful of guests wander past the huge barrels and endless rows of bottles holding its vintages.

“We used to have 300 to 450 people a day but with the pandemic… there are days when there are literally 15 people,” winery tour guide Vita Viznyuk told AFP in the cellars, her face covered by a black mask.

Impoverished Moldova, a tiny country wedged between Romania and Ukraine, has struggled to build a solid economy since gaining independence with the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

One of the few bright spots has been its long-established wine industry, well-known in eastern Europe with significant exports to Russia, Romania, Poland and other countries.

Vineyards have been trying for a decade to expand their business into tourism, offering wine tours and wine-themed resorts.

They were making some headway, but the pandemic has halted progress in its tracks.

In 2018 the country of only 3.5 million people welcomed 1.5 million foreign tourists — and almost half of them came to Moldova specifically for wine tours, Kristina Frolov, the head of Moldova’s National Office of Vine and Wine, told AFP.

Most came from Romania and Ukraine, but also from Russia and Germany, she said.

Barely larger than Belgium, the country has some 110,000 hectares (270,000 acres) of vines and has ranked in recent years as the world’s 20th-largest wine producer. (AFP | Ania TSOUKANOVA)