Rural rhapsody

[b]Foreign guests choosing Belarusian villages more often, making agro-ecotourism the most promising branch of the national economy [/b]Sadly, urbanisation is now widespread across Western Europe. Belarus has followed suit, with villagers now comprising a mere 20 percent of residents (down from 30 percent ten years ago). However, more people are now running businesses from villages: not just milk and meat production and grain growing but the new trend of agro-ecotourism. Anatoly Tozik, the Deputy Prime Minister and Chairman of the Interdepartmental Tourism Expert and Co-ordination Council at the Council of Ministers, believes that agro-ecotourism will be a driving force in reviving Belarusian villages.
Foreign guests choosing Belarusian villages more often, making agro-ecotourism the most promising branch of the national economy

Sadly, urbanisation is now widespread across Western Europe. Belarus has followed suit, with villagers now comprising a mere 20 percent of residents (down from 30 percent ten years ago). However, more people are now running businesses from villages: not just milk and meat production and grain growing but the new trend of agro-ecotourism.
Anatoly Tozik, the Deputy Prime Minister and Chairman of the Interdepartmental Tourism Expert and Co-ordination Council at the Council of Ministers, believes that agro-ecotourism will be a driving force in reviving Belarusian villages. “Agro-tourism is Belarus’ trademark. We can breathe new life into small villages,” he stresses, responding to a report from Valeria Klitsounova, who heads the Country Escape association. She notes that guesthouse owners are showing initiative, purchasing old houses in remote village with the aim of developing tourist business.
The President referred to such guesthouses in his State of the Nation Address to the Belarusian People and National Assembly, saying, “We need to more actively develop processing facilities in the regions, in addition to crafts, small businesses, agro-ecotourism and social and sports infrastructure.” He then added, “Tourists love to stay at simple yet cosy guesthouses.”
According to Belarus’ Deputy Sports and Tourism Minister, Cheslav Shulga, by late 2010, 1,247 rural guesthouses were operational, welcoming almost 120,000 guests. Last year, their revenue exceeded Br10bn. In comparison to 2006, the number of agro-ecotourists to the Republic had risen 132-fold!
This March, the 2011-2015 State Tourism Development Programme was adopted. Our country already boasts most of the necessary conditions to attract foreign tourists. The Sports and Tourism Minister, Oleg Kachan, believes that rural tourism will go from strength to strength, with 80 percent of holidaymakers preferring guesthouses. According to the Minister, last year, an information centre launched in Warsaw, promoting Belarus as a tourist destination. A similar centre recently opened in Berlin and there are plans to launch another in Paris in the future.
Of course, Belarus still has many abandoned and neglected villages. With this in mind, the Government has two or three pilot projects planned to revive them, establishing small agro-ecotourism complexes. Privileged terms for investors are to be offered. Mr. Shulga notes that other plans for the coming five years include reconstructing sites such as isolated farms and ancient family mansions. On November 19th, 2009, the Government adopted a plan of action to bring disused rural homes back into use as tourist accommodation — to be given to private individuals free of charge. Ancient architectural treasures, once home to famous noble families, were offered to applicants able to demonstrate an ability to restore them and a viable business plan. Regional and district executive committees’ websites feature photos and further details.
The Deputy Chairman of the Brest Regional Executive Committee, Leonid Tsuprik, tells us that, in 2002, there were 200 such mansions in his region, with another 14 due to be bought in Minsk Region. A chief specialist of the Culture Ministry’s Department for the Protection of Historical and Cultural Heritage and Restoration, Yuri Borisyuk, adds, “However, only 46 18th-early 20th century mansions belonging to former noble families countrywide are to become tourist sites, in line with the Governmental decision.”
The title of Best Guesthouse of 2010 went to Pavlinovo (in Brest Region’s Baranovichi District), which is connected with the poet Adam Mickiewicz. Situated halfway between Baranovichi and Brest, it was revamped by entrepreneur Valery Onipchenko and now resembles a Dutch house in a Belarusian village. “I sold my house in Baranovichi and an expensive car, doing everything possible to start my rural business,” he explains. “I invested $100,000, working day and night to rebuild the house with my own hands. I vaulted the basement, as was common a century ago: first laying rails, then making laps from reinforced steel. I used newspaper ads to find people selling pre-war furniture, managing to buy chests and wardrobes which had been many times repaired and repainted. I mended them, adding small items collected in Western Europe.”
On entering Pavlinovo, it’s hard to guess which items are 100 years old and which are new. All look polished and lacquered. Even a true antique rarity — a Dutch watch — looks as if it has just come from the factory. Mr. Onipchenko loves to use his cupboard with Tiffany crystal glass when dining. Some time ago, this was abandoned in an attic, despite its value.
Several years ago, many Belarusian villages were considered futureless but times have changed. They are reviving, much owing to enthusiasts like Valeria Klitsounova and Valery Onipchenko. Agro-ecotourism began with a small community of those who loved the countryside: Country Escape. The movement has now gained national status, in just five years of existence.
Soon, more services will become available to tourists visiting rural guesthouses. Mr. Shulga proposes that tour operators will oversee groups of houses, with each group sharing facilities. Already, there are many such guesthouses; there are over 300 in Vitebsk Region alone (compared with about 600 across Lithuania). Unsurprisingly, each is doing its best to attract guests. By 2015, Belarus plans to increase revenue from agro-ecotourism 3.5-fold — to Br35bn.

By Viktor Korbut
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