KIEV (Reuters) - Tours to Chernobyl, scene of the world’s worst nuclear accident, are popular with tourists visiting the Ukraine, but an even bigger attraction, particularly with football fans and gun enthusiasts, are the city’s shooting ranges.
Since the collapse of communism in Europe some 20 years ago, shooting ranges where tourists can fire automatic and semi-automatic weapons have sprung up on the outskirts of Kiev and in eastern European countries.
Everyone from businessmen to members of bachelor parties turn up to fire a few rounds from weapons most Europeans only ever see in the movies.
“There are shooting ranges in France but nothing like this. And certainly not an AK-47,” said Phillippe, a security consultant from Paris, who preferred not to give his surname.
Each member of the group of French tourists at the Falcon Sport Shooting club near Kiev had a chance to fire an AK-47 in automatic and semi-automatic modes, before switching to the Soviet-made Dragunov rifle.
“Previously our business was mostly British groups,” said Vika Dobrovolska, operations manager at Kiev Tours, which arranged the shooting practice session.
“But during Euro 2012 (Football Championship) we’ve had hundreds of Swedes out here, French, Italians, often several groups a day. I would say it’s our most popular activity by far,” she said.
Dobrovolska said shooting is a very “manly activity,” and that most of the visiting football fans are men.
“I would say 99.999 percent are men - and the other 0.001 percent is made up of me and my colleague Sasha,” she added.
Both women are experts at the activity and appear comfortable handling the pistols and automatic weapons on offer.
With restrictive gun laws and compulsory military service a thing of the past in most European Union countries, the shooting ranges provide the only legal opportunity most people will have to fire any sort of gun.
For gun connoisseurs there is the opportunity to fire Soviet-made Kalashnikovs and Dragunov sniper’s rifles, considered classics of the genre.
Dobrovolska said many people involved in the Ukrainian tourism industry were dismayed that the country had been depicted as a dangerous destination by foreign media before the Euro 2012 football championship, but bookings have been in line with expectations.
“I‘m glad so many people came and saw that Kiev is not a dangerous city, and I think it will boost tourism in Ukraine even after Euro 2012 is over.”
Another member of the French group described the chance to fire the weapons as a particularly unique experience and added that he and his colleagues had felt very safe during their visit to Ukraine.
A spokesman for Kiev’s police force said the crime rate in the city had dropped during Euro 2012, despite the influx of foreign fans and pre-tournament fears of a spate of robberies, pickpocketing and racist incidents.
Back at the clubhouse in the sprawling shooting facility on the outskirts of Kiev, the French football fans compared their shooting scores over a cold beer. Most of them managed to hit the target at least once.
Editing by Patricia Reaney