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Opinion: Tourism in Belarus – Beyond Soviet Legacy And Postcard Nature

In less than 2 weeks Belarus will open visa-free entry to travelers from 80 states. Is the country ready for this new experience? What can it offer to tourists spoilt with rich offers from popular travel destinations?

Four experts have shared their thoughts on Belarus tourism attractiveness and steps that the country needs to take to go from a ‘blank space’ on a map to a bucket list destination?

circle_karpov_opinion_5daysEugene Karpov, entertainment and travel journalist, former Contributing Editor at TUT.BY

The first thing I thought when I heard about the abolition of visas in Belarus: “Wow, I must inform my foreign friends!” Later, on Facebook I saw dozens of posts from my Belarusian friends who did the same thing.

For many, this long-awaited step by the authorities became a real reason to celebrate, and a real opportunity to show foreign friends that Belarus can be very different from the way it is portrayed in the foreign media.

The ‘Europe’s Last Dictatorship’ label, an expression added to almost every publication about Belarus in the Western media, became a kind of a ‘brand’ of the country and is often used by journalists, who themselves have never been here.

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People cooling off on a hot day in a water park in Minsk, July 2015

That’s why during the 2014 Ice Hockey World Championship, held in Minsk, a lot of journalists came together alongside thousands of fans to check if it is true that every second citizen is a KGB agent. Imagine their surprise when it turned out they were not!

In the absence of a sea, mountains and hundreds of centuries-old monuments, the main attraction of Belarus is its hospitable people

Locals are very fond of foreigners, and are willing to invite them to home, even though many Belarusians don’t speak English, especially outside Minsk. If you plan to spend 5 visa-free days here, you must to be prepared for this.

Therefore, in the absence of a sea, mountains and hundreds of centuries-old monuments, the main attraction of Belarus is its hospitable people – something that foreigners may consider very unusual.

In general, the tourism industry in Belarus can be compared to an infant. The country has something to show, but so far we haven’t learned how to present and to sell it.

For example, if you search for popular travel shows’ editions about Belarus on Youtube, you will not find a single series. The same applies to detailed tourist guides in English in foreign media – they would either be obsolete or inexistent.

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Minsk Jazz Evenings, June 2016

So, while planning a trip to Belarus, one will have to spend a few days googling or find a local guide. It is unlikely that a foreigner will be able to find information about eco-farms in Polesie, a huge swampy area often poetically called ‘the lungs of Europe’, by themselves.

At the same time, a rise in gastronomic events has been observed in Belarus for the past three years. In Minsk, there has never been so many music and food festivals as in summer 2016. And, while they are not as ambitious and large-scale as Sziget or Lollapalooza, they certainly have their own authentic charm.

circle_shkarubo_opinion_5daysElena Shkarubo, Founder at MeetnGreetMe.com, concierge services for travelers from locals

International travelers have low expectations – if any – regarding their visit to Belarus due to irrelevant, out of date or just boring information they can find on the internet.

That’s the point when we start losing potential guests. Why should they go somewhere in nowhere?

Let’s invite popular travel bloggers, influencers and opinion leaders!

I think we should start with increasing travelers’ awareness of Belarus, the Belarus as it is, but not as it is now presented on the internet.

What can we do for it? Are we going to host any international events that might be interesting for international community? Let’s invite popular travel bloggers, influencers and opinion leaders!

Let’s show them Belarus that meets their needs and wants, where travelers from different parts of the world can find what they are looking for. We might reckon that they want to see Belarus with amazing nature and old castles while they are totally into pubs, clubs and hockey games.

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People chill out at one of the bar streets in Minsk, August 2015

Let’s better surprise them rather than let them loose their interest. International visitors say Minsk has a great night life? Let’s be proud of it and promote it!

The previously mentioned low expectations provide us with a lot of space for giving much more than it is actually expected and making global travelers happy with their travel experience.

Belarus is different from the majority of European countries in terms of architecture, lifestyle, culture, people, food, traditions etc. At the same time it has a lot of things global travelers are looking for.

From a ride on tank and crafted beer tasting tour to fascinating opera and visiting castles, every traveler can find exactly what matters most for them

Those who want to find the elements of the former USSR will be totally satisfied. And they are welcome to discuss it afterwards in a fancy restaurant with the high level service, great food and English speaking personnel.

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WWII re-enactment at Stalin line historical complex, August 2015

From a ride on tank and crafted beer tasting tour to fascinating opera and visiting castles, every traveler can find exactly what matters most for them.

One more interesting thing the international guests admit is our authenticity. Belarus is not yet spoiled with their attention. It finds its reflection in a way we treat international tourists. Kind smiles with a hint of curiosity make them feel special and very welcome.

circle_pomerantsev_opinion_5daysGregory Pomerantsev, Managing Partner at Aeropartner SIA, former acting Head of the National Tourism Agency of Belarus, former Senior Vice President at airBaltic

For decades the development of Belarusian incoming tourism has been impaired by a number of major barriers: the lack of information about the country abroad, visa restrictions and limited choice of affordable flights to Minsk.

While residents of the neighboring countries are relatively well aware of this ‘Terra incognita in the heart of Europe’, their motivation to come here as tourists, with the exception of Russian travelers, has been traditionally low – negative political context of the news reports coming from Belarus, in combination with bureaucratic process of getting Belarusian visa made foreigners turn their attention to other tourist destinations, more attractive and easily accessible.

Restricted airline competition in the regulated Belarusian aviation market has kept ticket prices on average 2-3 times higher for travelers arriving at Minsk National Airport, compared to neighboring airports of Vilnius, Riga, Warsaw or Kiev.

However, some progress to open Belarus to the world’s touristic flows was made in the past two years. Lifting visa restrictions for 3-5-day visits to two Belarusian regions – Belovezhskaya Puscha with its relic forest and the beautiful area around Grodno – was the first tiny step which pushed positive news vibrations both inside the country and globally.

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Minsk Half Marathon, September 2016. Full report

The next step to enhance incoming tourism to the country was the President’s decree – as from February 12th, 2017 citizens of 80 countries are welcome to visit Belarus without visa for a stay of up to 5 days when arriving and departing by plane via Minsk National Airport.

Yet still more needs to be done to make Belarus shine on the global tourism map. Fostering private initiative (tourism is the industry of emotions!), switching business mentality from product-centric to customer-oriented will enhance customer service skills, boost the use of foreign languages and stimulate creative ideas and pro-active thinking among managers and employees in the tourism sector.

Someone wants to come for only a 1-2 days’ stay? Let them have a cheap flight, attractive rate at a quality hotel, a premium excursion around Minsk or a nightlife program nicely packaged in one simple tour offer

Simple yet attractive and interesting tour packages should be designed and tailored to the taste of different tourists from the EU, Asian or Arabic states.

Someone wants to come for only a 1-2 days’ stay? So let him or her have a cheap flight, a hotel transfer or a cozy regular shuttle bus, attractive rate at a quality hotel, a premium excursion around Minsk or a nightlife program nicely packaged in one simple tour offer.

Other travelers may want to spend more time – 3, 4 or 5 days, so why not design and offer to them a-la-carte options to explore fascinating Mir and Nesvizh castles, enjoy local cuisine and craft in Dudutki village, paddle in a boat along rivers or lakes or plunge into vivid historic atmosphere of Napoleonic times, and gloomy realities of the First or Second World Wars by joining animated performances in Borisov, Smorgon or Brest areas?

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Re-enactment of 1812 battle with Napoleon near Berezina river. Full report

Unique local activities can surprise even experienced travelers: driving the world’s biggest BelAZ truck, relaxing in Soligorsk salt mines, watching tank battles at the Stalin Line or joining the “Bra festival” in Rakov (variation of the Blond Festival in Riga), the native town of Ida Rozentahl, who immigrated to the USA where she invented the modern type of bra and launched the company Madenform.

A broad range of supporting images – distinctive, authentic, meaningful and memorable such as world-known Belarusian products World of Tanks, Viber, BelAZ or famous people such as Mark Chagall, Larry King, Haim Weizman – can be used to sparkle interest and enhance awareness and loyalty among potential tourists, investors, businessmen, foreign students and other target groups.

Those willing to escape the world’s buzz can find a perfect shelter in Belarus too: eco-friendly activities – berry-picking, mushrooming or birds-watching – followed by a steamy sauna and a good sleep at the hospitable Belarusian farm house will bring everyone back to life!

circle_shatkevich_opinion_5daysAnastasiya Shatkevich, Contributing Editor at Traveling.by, Communications Specialist at the National Tourism Agency of Belarus

Speaking about tourism potential of Belarus, we should start with admitting the following sad fact: Belarusians themselves don’t travel much around the country.

Nor do they travel a lot outside their homeland – excluding shop tours to Vilnius and Bialystok, there’s only a small per cent of people who go abroad for culture, arts and new experiences.

It’s hard to say what are the reasons behind it – is it our motives, our mode of thinking or financial opportunities? But this fact should be taken into consideration when we talk about hospitality and the quality of tourism services in Belarus.

A person, who is not a tourist in nature, will hardly understand the needs of foreign tourists, whom  we all want to see in Belarus. Hence, negative reviews about rude cashiers and sales assistants in some regional centers and the absence of English menus in cafes will continue to appear.

The development of tourism is impossible without local people, who are willing to welcome foreign guests and work with them

There is a saying ‘Happiness in the little things’. I believe that tourism in Belarus should also start with those little things.

The opening of the borders is a very big step, but unless we manage to surprise foreign visitors with pleasant, seemingly routine, trifles during their stay, they will leave and never come back. The development of tourism is impossible without local people, who are willing to welcome foreign guests and work with them.

Belarus is a quiet, calm and in a way slow country. Many foreigners notice that. In one of the travel brochures we included a phrase ‘Relax! Take your time to think!’, probably the best advice for a person choosing to spend their time in Belarus. In my opinion, it perfectly reflects the atmosphere that we need to promote.

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History amateurs stage an ancient Belarusian rite Rusalle, June 2015

The fact that Belarus is not flooded with tourists can even be an advantage in the eyes of those who have visited popular travel destinations.

I personally was surprised by a package tour designed by one Belarusian travel agency. They were offering a trip around the so-called ‘places of power’ – locations that had sacral value for the local population in ancient times.

A group of British tourists was interested because they wanted to take part in Kupalle rite they had been reading about. The celebration was organized near the Neman river considered to be an energetically-loaded place.

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Starry sky over Mir Castle, August 2015

For me, it was the discovery of a new side of Belarusian tourism – wow, there’s something besides nature, castles, and museums!

And we have other ancient rites still observed in remote villages – Kolyadnye kings in Semezhevo, Shchodryki in Zhitkovichi area. Many traditions are gradually being forgotten.

In my opinion, such colorful and exciting events can be of interest to foreign travelers. Especially, if we can promote and present them in an equally colorful and interesting way.