By Andrey Ruplivy
Many people know of Minsk as a large industrial city but, in recent years, it has become a centre of political, economic, sporting, cultural and other international events. In the future, it’s ‘calling card’ is to become even more attractive, owing to the development of its tourist infrastructure. The latter should ensure more payments into the budget, in addition to new jobs.
Money vs health
Every year, Minsk is visited by at least 600,000-700,000 guests, attracted by the Troitsky Suburb, Stolitsa underground trade centre and the new National Library. Others arrive to attend the capital’s theatres or visit a concert by global stars at the Palace of the Republic or Minsk-Arena.
Over 4,000 enterprises using foreign capital operate in Minsk. Accordingly, it’s no surprise that many people are attracted to the country’s main city for business. Meanwhile, recuperative tourism is actively developing. Foreigners — primarily, Russians — are ready to travel to Belarus to use the services of dentists, oncologists and fertility specialists or simply to pass a complex medical examination. They are attracted by our offer of value for money. The popularity of such Belarusian services with those from further abroad — from the EU and the Far East — shall largely depend on our doctors’ ability to obtain international certification. Additionally, foreign insurance companies must be ready to pay for their clients’ stay at a Minsk clinic.
There are plans to attract at least a million guests to the capital annually — almost double the present figure. However, significant investments and infrastructure development are needed.
Less ‘stars’ — more profit?
“There are three aspects influencing raised incoming tourism,” the Deputy Head of the Physical Culture, Sport and Tourism Department at the Minsk City Executive Committee, Vitaly Moshechkov, tells us. Firstly, hotels are vital. There are 28 in Minsk now, able to accommodate 5,500 people. Each tourist spends six days on average in the city; even with 100 percent occupancy, the capital can accommodate just 600,000-700,000 guests a year. Of course, we should take into consideration that about half of all those coming to Minsk are Belarusian.
The situation is due to drastically change by 2014, when the city is to host the World Hockey Championship. Already, six hotels are being built or reconstructed; in total, twenty new hotels will be open by then. As a result, Minsk will be able to welcome 5,000 more tourists each night — almost double today’s capacity.
“Foreigners with mid-level incomes are our target price segment in Minsk,” continues Mr. Moshechkov. With this in mind, hotels with four or five stars will be less popular than cheaper three star hotels. Accordingly, more three star hotels need to be built in Minsk over the coming years. Reduced ‘star’ status and enhanced competition should lead to cheaper accommodation prices, promoting the attraction of tourists and positively affecting Belarusian travellers.
Border free and advertising reserves
The second vital aspect is the need to cross the border freely. Half of all foreigners entering Belarus arrive from Russia — much owing to our long established business and cultural ties, our transparent border and the single Russian-language space.
However, EU residents are also showing interest in Minsk, in addition to those from the Middle East. The ease of the visa and customs regime should inspire even greater interest. It’s no secret that the number of incoming tourists tripled in Ukraine after it simplified its procedures for EU guests. In turn, after Russia and Israel abolished certain visas, tourist flow quadrupled. Belarus is working in the same direction.
The third aspect is an active marketing policy, since we must lift barriers and actively develop tourist infrastructure. In addition to accommodation and excursions, a wider range of services are needed.
Preferences for hospitality
Each foreign tourist spends around $200-250 in Belarus on products and services. Moreover, as foreign experience shows, eight tourists create enough revenue to validate a new job position. Belarus’ tourist sector is of great importance, having the potential to generate revenue and employment; we must develop it wisely. Minsk accounts for the lion’s share of all foreign tourists coming into the country. Accordingly, it has the right to dictate fashion in this branch. Of course, this would only be appreciated if the whole sector develops smoothly countrywide. Some measures could soon be adopted, according to the Deputy Director for Tourism at the Sports and Tourism Ministry, Andrey Martynov. He tells us that a presidential decree is being prepared to cut VAT on hotel services, while simplifying procedures for allocating lots to build cafes or other tourist infrastructure sites. “We’d like to introduce a tax free system for foreigners,” he notes. This system would enable visitors from abroad to receive a partial refund on taxes paid while buying services and goods during their stay. Another proposal deals with privileged terms for the development of caravan sites.
If the country becomes more attractive to tourists, Minsk should easily rival other states in attracting guests and money.
Top five historical sites in Minsk:
1. The Town Hall, built in 1600;
2. The Cathedral on Nemiga Street — the main church of the Russian Orthodox Church’s Belarusian Exarchate;
3. Troitsky Suburb;
4. The Cathedral of St. Peter and Paul;
5. Rakov Suburb.
Top five contemporary sites in Minsk:
1. The National Library;
2. The multifunctional Minsk-Arena complex;
3. The renewed Loshitsa Estate and Park Complex;
4. All Saints Church;
5. Stolitsa underground trade centre (among the largest in Europe).