They populate Odessa's numerous terrace cafés, stroll in hordes through its parks, and fill the plush velvet seats of its 19thcentury opera house.A foreign man, usually though not always over 60 and American, sits with a Ukrainian girl, probably in her twenties and strikingly attractive.Habitually, they are joined by another young woman, the translator, who facilitates the dialogue."She says she likes a strong man who knows his mind." "Tell her I love the idea of two cultures coming together in a relationship." "She says she thinks you could be her soulmate."Hundreds of dating agencies operate in Odessa, luring the foreign dollar into the laidback Black Sea port city with a suggestion of the nubile young model living a life so impoverished that she will be ready to fly away with the first slack-skinned foreign pensioner who offers her a way out.

Some of the Americans wear sharp suits and talk loudly about their property empires; others are from small towns in the Midwest and have acquired passports specially to make the trip.

Most of the men are divorced and in their fifties or sixties.

The oldest is 76-year-old Giuseppe, an Italian plastic surgeon, while the youngest is 29-year-old Chris, a stand-up comic from New York.

Curious to find out if the "mail-order bride" is alive and well in the 21st century, I joined a 10-day "romance tour" organised by Anastasia Date, one of the world's biggest "international dating" agencies.

The company had £90m of revenue last year, mainly through its prodigiously expensive chat services, where men pay up to £1 per minute to talk with women located across the globe, or up to £10 to send them an email message.

As a by-product, the company runs tours to locations as diverse as Colombia, the Philippines, and Ukraine, to meet the women they have met online.

For the not inconsequential sum of £3,000, the 39 men present at our induction meeting on day one have bought the chance to attend three "socials" – huge events at nightclubs where they will be in the company of hundreds of young Ukrainian women apparently looking for love.

They then have a week to go on dates with the women they encounter at the socials, meet up with those they have met online previously, and perhaps end their tour with a proposal.

With their clipboards and information packs, the men listen attentively to the induction speech in our hotel's conference room, given by tour leader John Carlton, who speaks in a Tennessee drawl.