Rural idyll is truly worthy alternative to city life
By Viktar Andreev
Sports and Tourism Minister Oleg Kachan believes that agro-ecotourism is among the most promising areas of tourism for Belarus. “Our natural landscapes, rivers, lakes and rural colour are the foundation of agro-ecotourism. In recent years, this sphere has been actively developing, with aid from private investors. The state is creating all necessary conditions to attract investments into the tourist industry, with land offered to anyone wishing to inject money into this field,” he explains.
Last year, 120,000 people stayed at rural guest houses; five years ago, hardly 1,000 were registered, as the trend hadn’t yet taken off. Now, potential hosts are taking out loans at privileged terms to transform their properties into village mini-hotels. In many districts, proprietors are joining spas and museums in offering tourist excursions, promoting ecological paths and ‘green’ routes.
The Vitebsk Region is the most dynamic regarding agro-ecotourism, as the Chair of the Belarusian Association of Rural and Ecotourism — Country Escape, Valeria Klitsounova, explains. Having founded the agro-ecotourism industry in Belarus, she tells us, “The region is not particularly fertile, although it boasts unique forests, lakes and rivers. People have realised that they can earn more from preserving nature and promoting agro-ecotourism than from forestry or farming. Privileged terms are available for loans to develop accommodation for guests. Of course, this generates employment. The Rossony District has been lagging behind economically but is now a leader in the field of agro-ecotourism.”
An agro-tourist resort is to be built in the Rossony District in 2012, near local homesteads. Residents were the first to unite into ‘tourism co-operatives’, developing ‘green’ routes and offering excursions to Polotsk. Such efforts are only profitable were performed jointly, as it’s much easier to arrange a tour for a couple of dozen people staying at neighbouring homesteads. Diverse entertainments are also organised: culinary master classes, mushroom and berry gathering, pottery classes, trips to folk museums and festivals, cycle tours and rafting.
The Government supports all these initiatives. “Agro-ecotourism could help revive Belarusian villages,” believes the Deputy Prime Minister and the Chairman of the Interstate Expert-Co-ordination Council on Tourism at the Council of Ministers, Anatoly Tozik. “We’re breathing new life into small villages through tourism. We know of examples where people have bought neglected buildings in remote villages, aiming to launch them as guest houses. With state support, it’s taken just five years to turn the situation around.”
Belarusians have learnt much about agro-ecotourism from neighbouring Poland. Not long ago, guests from the Polish Pomorze Centre of Agricultural Consulting visited Belarus. Its chief specialist, Agnieszka Roewska, praised Belarusian experience as efficient, saying, “Agro-ecotourism brings evident benefits to villagers: new jobs (a single homestead usually employs around ten people), additional profit, improved infrastructure and the preservation of our cultural legacy. Meanwhile, tourists benefit from active holidaying in the countryside, with fresh air and home cooking from local ingredients. They also discover local customs. Belarusian and Polish agro-ecotourism has much in common while being different. In Poland, guest house owners are individuals, strongly competing against each other. In Belarus, they co-operate, creating large agrotourist complexes — such as seen at Garadzenski Maentak, in Korobchitsy (near the Avgustovsky Canal). This is an interesting example for us, as the canal passes through Poland.”
Agrotourist complexes are springing up countrywide. For example, the Volozhin District offers the ‘Volozhin Gastinets (Present)’ route, inviting guests to see its three eco-museums. Information boards have been installed, in addition to recreation zones, and, of course, one of Father Frost’s residences is situated there — rivalling that of the Belovezhskaya Pushcha.
Interestingly, many Russians are now buying houses and renting land in the Braslav District, which abounds in lakes. New homesteads are soon to appear.
In turn, Minsk has its own Centre of Agro- and Ecotourism Development, which helps companies develop tourism in rural areas. It primarily focuses on assisting those keen to preserve Belarusian folk customs. Seventeen Belarusian customs are hoping for inclusion on the UNESCO list — among them wedding and Kolyady customs. Rural holiday makers would be further inspired to travel to the countryside, knowing that so many local customs and festivals are recognised by this prestigious organisation.