Neighbours as tourists
By Viktar Korbut
In mid April, Minsk was visited by Raimonda Balniene, Director of the State Department of Tourism under the Economy Ministry of Lithuania, accompanied by representatives of the tourist branch of her country. Interestingly, she noted that Belarusians account for 15 percent of all foreign tourists to Lithuania, being among the top three nations visiting Vilnius (alongside Russians and Poles). Most Belarusians arrive in Lithuania on business trips, or to visit their relatives and friends. They also love to go shopping and use local resort services. “The attraction of tourists from Belarus, as well as from Germany and the UK, is among the top priorities for our country,” stresses the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Lithuania to Belarus, H.E. Mr. Edminas Bagdonas.
Many Belarusians are awaiting the launch of a grand ski complex — Snoras Snow — in Lithuanian Druskininkai; it is set to join the top five global winter resorts. Since 1940, Belarus Sanatorium has operated in Druskininkai, being located in a beautiful spot on the Nieman River. Additionally, the Be2gether musical festival is a traditional symbol of Belarusian-Lithuanian friendship, held in June. This year, the site by Norviliskes Castle is to host the festival of music and art for the fifth time.
Lithuania remains a leader in terms of rural tourism in the region, with Belarus keen to learn from the experience of the country. Ausra Selelionyte, Director of Belvilis hotel complex in Moletai, notes this is the only hotel in the area. Travellers tend to stay at one of the 50 homesteads operating in the region (concentrated in great density there in comparison to other Lithuanian regions). Enough rural guesthouses exist to meet demand. As well as boasting 18 lakes, there is also the Museum of Ethno-Cosmology, open 24 hours a day. It is unique, allowing visitors to view the stars via its magnificent telescope, while learning how our ancestors described celestial objects.
“To attract foreign tourists to Belarus we need to take into consideration the experience of our neighbours, diversifying our tourist programmes,” notes Belarus’ Deputy Sports and Tourism Minister, Cheslav Shulga. “At present, our nature is unrivalled, so we are relying on the development of our lake, river and hunting tourism.”
Cross Hill, near Siauliai, bears the amazing sight of 200,000 crucifixes placed over its summit, brought by visitors from all over the globe, planted as they say a prayer. Mosar is a similar Christian Mecca in Belarus. Lithuanian-born Roman Catholic priest Juozas Bulka built a copy of Vilnius’ Ausros Vartai (the Gates of Dawn) on the site (which keeps the Mother of God icon revered by all Christian believers). Belarus’ Sports and Tourism Ministry plans to attract those who currently holiday in Lithuania and Latvia, hoping to ‘add’ Belarus onto multi-destination tours. Just 180km separate Vilnius and Minsk and almost one million tourists have been visiting Lithuania and Latvia annually, both of which border Belarus. Naturally, Mr. Shulga is realistic, saying,” There is one obstacle for foreign tourists — not the cost of a Belarusian visa but the time needed for its issue. We know that tourists prefer to receive a visa immediately on the border, without waiting even a day or two.” With this in mind, the heads of the Foreign Ministry, the Finance Ministry, the State Border Committee and the Sports and Tourism Ministry are to meet to discuss reducing tourist visa fees and other issues, notes the Deputy Prime Minister of the Belarusian Government, Anatoly Tozik.