On 12 February, Belarus celebrated a two-year anniversary of its visa-free regime via Minsk National Airport. BelarusFeed talked to experts to draw a line under one of the most anticipated legal changes for tourists in Belarus.
Much was achieved, much remains to be done.
It’s not about the numbers, it’s about the image
Vitali Hrytsevich, Deputy Head of the Tourism Department at Ministry Of Sports And Tourism
The most significant change brought by the visa-free program was the change to the country’s image. The very fact that we portrayed Belarus as an open and hospitable country ready to welcome guests.
The news hit the headlines of large foreign media, even those that have always been critical of the country. For instance, The Telegraph used to describe Belarus as Europe’s last dictatorship, and the most drinking nation. As soon as Belarus waived visa, those perceptions changed.
In my opinion, other things being equal, visa-free entry is an additional incentive to visit a country. Take Vietnam, the country is stretched along the coast with the capital in the north, and Ho Chi Minh City, the country’s largest business city, in the south.
To make a Belarusian visa, a local businessman needs to travel several thousand kilometers. Who would like that? Or, for example, Australia. The Belarusian embassy closed in 2018, but Australians visit Belarus as now they need no visa.
We are currently working on merging of visa-free zones in Grodno and Brest. We hope this will encourage foreigners to stay in Belarus longer, plus, bring additional profit to the regions.
Lack of advertising
Ksenia Kurus, the director of the hostel in the Trinity Suburb
Certainly, the flow of tourists has increased, but, honestly, we expected more of them. Our guests say the process remains too complicated.
While an air ticket from Bremen to Venice costs €7, one should monitor sales to fish out a ticket from Vilnius to Minsk for €50-60. Budget travelers just don’t understand why fly, if you can take a bus for 20-30 rubles (~€8-12 ).
True, Belavia has some sales now and then, but for budget travelers, it is still pretty expensive. I think it is necessary to open land borders so that they can enter by car or train.
There’s another problem, a lot of people still don’t know that Belarus exists, let alone a visa-free regime in it. Many learn about visa changes by chance, from their friends or travel agents.
There is no well-publicized information on the internet, no advertising, government support and promotion. It is important to speak about a visa-free regime as much and as often as possible.
If it works, don’t touch it
Yaroslav Likhachevsky, CEO and co-founder of the Belarusian-Dutch medical startup Deepdee
In my view, visa-free travel the way it is today is big progress. Thirty days is more than enough for business trips to Belarus. In our case, visa-free travel makes the arrival of partners and investors to Minsk much easier.
This, in turn, helps to make personal contact, introduce the team properly and build relationships. In business, every extra step in scheduling meetings creates an additional barrier.
Time-consuming delays are the worst ones in this regard, that’s why the opportunity to buy tickets and fly right away is a significant advantage in communication.
For a person with a European or American passport, a visa itself is exotic. They take the absence of a visa for granted. Thus, visa-free Belarus feels like a part of a familiar European space.
As for the improvement of the Belarusian visa-free travel, a simple rule should be applied here – if it works, do not touch it. At the same time, the temporary registration procedure is questionable.
Online registration was finally allowed, this is a big breakthrough for us. And still, I see it as an atavism that needs to be removed.
English and navigation in the city
Evgeny Danilik, the founder of the Museum of architectural miniatures Strana mini
After a visa-free regime was introduced, the museum greatly expanded its geography of tourists. They came from Australia, Britain, USA, China, Norway, Spain, India, Mexico. Even more tourists came from our neighbors, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.
The visa waiver removes a psychological barrier for a tourist, saves time and money. Not all tourists plan their vacation in advance: some start googling where to go to in a week or two, and visa countries for them is not an option.
I am convinced that Belarus got its share of spontaneous tourists as well. And still, some barriers exist, our guests note the absence of low-cost carriers, pricy Belavia air tickets, poor English and rare English-language street navigation.
Registration upon arrival is not easy too. However, the problem will disappear, as soon as the online procedure is debugged, and understandable guides in different languages are issued.
Visa exemption was such a relief
Victor Efthymiadis, Travel Director of TRAVEL DESIGNER
The abolition of visas affected the demand, more tourists started coming to Belarus, both for the weekend and weekly tours. I am a foreigner too, I first arrived in Minsk in 2017 on a tourist visa I received at the airport.
Although I visited over 50 countries, it was the most difficult visa application in my life. Getting a visa at the airport took more than 2.5 hours, the queue was huge and only one consular specialist worked.
When the visas were canceled and the stay was extended to 30 days, I let out a sigh of relief. In an instance, Belarus became more attractive for foreign partners ready to come to business events and exhibitions.
I think the number of tourists could have increased several times if a visa-free option would include the border crossing points on the borders with Lithuania, Latvia and Poland for road and rail transport.
There would be more tourist groups and students from neighboring countries. Besides, more Europeans would come, since Lithuania and Poland have good air connection with England and Western Europe. Europeans travel a lot, and they do have an interest in Belarus, which for many remains terra incognita.
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