Welcome to our house,
[b]or how to see Paris far from France[/b]2009 is known globally for its economic crisis, yet has been a success for Belarus in the field of tourism. The country has been visited by more foreign travellers than ever before. In the first six months of the year, the State Border Committee registered 2.67m people crossing the border — despite forecasters predicting falling numbers. Many thought that people had less money to travel but, in the first nine months of 2009, tourist revenue totalled $60m — $3m up on the same period of 2008.
2009 is known globally for its economic crisis, yet has been a success for Belarus in the field of tourism. The country has been visited by more foreign travellers than ever before. In the first six months of the year, the State Border Committee registered 2.67m people crossing the border — despite forecasters predicting falling numbers. Many thought that people had less money to travel but, in the first nine months of 2009, tourist revenue totalled $60m — $3m up on the same period of 2008.
Lake resorts. Belarus lacks the kind of resorts found in Turkey or Croatia. However, from January-June, over 51,000 foreigners recuperated at our sanatoriums. This gives grounds for optimism. Victor Yankovenko, the Director of the Tourism Department at Belarus’ Ministry of Sports and Tourism, tells us that new sites have been allocated for the building of new recreation facilities: on Lake Selyava (in Krupki district of Minsk region) and on Lake Beloe (in Brest region). He notes that foreign businessmen are eagerly studying hotel projects. Most are from Russia and Turkey, although some UAE representatives are showing interest.
Mr. Yankovenko admits that much work lies ahead; major roads leading to future resorts need to be considered, alongside road services. “Of course, some have already been built — uniting hotels, cafйs and shops. However, we still lack them in many places. Meanwhile, Belarus is being transited by 1.5m tourists a year.”
From Brest to Brest. Candidate of Geographical Sciences Galina Potaeva, the Director of Viapol, has been hosting foreign guests for over two decades. She knows that, in many countries, the tourism industry contributes more to the budget than other fields. Ms. Potaeva believes that Belarus boasts huge potential in this area, offering good value for money.
“Our tourist sites offer something for everyone: gentle nature; different confessions’ churches; knowledgeable guides; low density population; tasty cuisine; interesting animation; clean roads; and beautiful women. Every weekend, we receive applications from foreign groups wanting to tour the country. We offer excursions to the castles of Mir and Nesvizh, to the folk village of Dudutki, and to Christian churches in the villages of Budslav and Mosar.”
Belarus has plenty of unusual sites worth visiting. For example, it boasts its own Paris — in the north of the country. The village recently acquired fame and even has its own Eiffel Tower. This unusual coincidence of names and realities is not the job of modern PR managers. Rather, the village of Paris has a long history. Interestingly, France also has a namesake of Belarusian Brest — the capital of Bretan province. Distance seems to divide us but all Europeans share common features. You need only to travel of course, to see that this is true.
Nikolay Takunov, Vneshintourist’s Deputy Director, notes that a tourist manager familiar with Belarus’ advantages will always be able to make amazing suggestions to guests. “We are a safe country — which is of primary importance. Whatever is said abroad, there is no criminal tension here. Our infrastructure needs further development but, at the same time, no one can say Minsk lacks cafйs or bars,” he asserts.
Sport as tourism. Russians comprise the major share of travellers to Belarus. However, heads of tourist agencies admit that a growing number of Europeans are being registered. Alexey Strelchenko, the Director of AlatanTour, believes sporting events are stirring greater interest. “The more sporting competitions we host, the more tourists we’ll see,” he says. “I’m pinning great hopes on the 2014 World Hockey Championship — to be held in Minsk. Sports aside, Belarus already has a positive image in the eyes of those who’ve visited. I hardly ever hear negative reviews. Foreigners love the cleanliness of our cities, the network of places where they can entertain themselves and our people’s benevolence and good nature. The latter is especially amazing to those from southern countries, who also enjoy our green cities and reserves, especially the Belovezhskaya Pushcha. Our success is not surprising, regardless of the general fall in tourism spending worldwide. Many would consider coming to our country above expensive destinations. Belarus is a relatively inexpensive state for services and our hospitality is the talk of the world. Belarusians won’t let a guest leave until they’ve fed them.”
Polesie like Africa. Visitors to Belarus can relax in the countryside while enjoying exotic entertainments. Maria Filipovich, Belintourist’s Director, notes, “Natural resources are one of our tourist treasures. This was also highlighted by the Secretary-General of the World Tourism Organisation, Francesco Frangialli, during his visit to Belarus. In the West, just a few trees can be viewed as a park, while most land is privately owned. An Italian arriving in Belarus is shocked to hear that anyone can freely pick mushrooms in the forest. In their country, you have to stick to paths, guided by arrows; our forests are state owned and accessible to all. The River Pripyat is our ‘Amazon’. I’ve visited the site myself, taking a motor boat cruise with colleagues. One exclaimed, “African rivers didn’t make such an impression on me as the Pripyat!” At the time, the river had flooded its banks. We saw huge blue dragonflies above our heads and caught a 70kg catfish in the evening.”
The President of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, believes that agro-ecotourism could be a promising branch in the Polesie region. “It’s a profitable business,” he stresses. “Agro-villages could be built there, attracting people to fish and hunt. Picturesque landscapes, clean air and rich natural resources are a good basis for tourism development. There’s no need to construct luxurious complexes; everything should be simple and comfortable. The main thing is not to change the natural balance.”
Chagall’s homeland. Of course, not only nature and cosy, beautiful towns attract tourists. Mr. Takunov says, “As regards British interest in our country, they are keen on Minsk’s musical life, opera and ballet. They often wish to visit Vitebsk — Chagall’s homeland. The city is also known for famous artist Kazimir Malevich. Recently, we’ve seen travellers coming to Smilovichi (a once little known village near Minsk). Chaim Soutine — an outstanding artist of the last century — was born there.”
Naturally, many foreigners are unaware that such masters as Chagall, Soutine and Malevich were born in Belarus. Those interested can visit sites connected with their lives. The path to their artistry leads inevitably to Belarus.
The Director of Belarustourservice, Gennady Levshin, sees no problem in the fact that Belarus is still building its image. “Soviet architecture is prominent in Belarus, with sites still in their original condition. It’s like going to Rome to see ancient monuments. Importantly, we are demonstrating to the whole world that we are a bridge between the West and the East. This positioning arouses interest as well.”
Nostalgia over family home. Some countries have special interest in Belarus — rooted in recollections from the past. Many Belarusians and their descendants now reside in Poland, Israel and the USA, so they often return to their motherland in search
of their origins.
Tatiana Khvagina, a famous guide in Pinsk, has developed special excursions for Poles and Israelis. She assures us that Belarus is a very original country and each region boasts its own specific character and ‘contingent’ of tourists. “Poles are interested in sites where their forefathers or famous figures — such as Adam Mickiewicz and Tadeush Kostyushko (Brest and Grodno regions) — were born. Such tourism is called nostalgic. Pilgrimages to Polesie’s Catholic sites are also popular among Poles.”
Tourists from Israel differ. “These are always educated and expect much from guides,” Ms. Khvagina notes. “Much preliminary work is needed to organise a tour — it’s difficult yet interesting. We find houses from pre-WWII years. In 2007, Microsoft CEO Steve Balmer visited the country on a nostalgic tour. His ancestors lived in the village of Molotkovichi (in the Pinsk district). Steve was shown his grandfather’s tavern and bakery; we also took him to the cemetery. Prior to this, we needed to research the route — on site and from archive documents.”
Abolition of the Belarus-Israel visa regime is being studied, to strengthen tourism between our countries. About 300,000 Belarusian expats live in Israel. Belavia and El Al fly regularly (several times a week).
EU citizens are likely to receive new routes to Belarus soon. According to the Minister of Sports and Tourism, Oleg Kachan, his Ministry advocates the simplification of the visa regime for EU citizens. Mr. Kachan also notes that a simplified visa regime with Lithuania (with whom we share a 50km border) is being studied. The Belarusian part of the zone is to include such tourist attractions as the Belovezhskaya Pushcha and Avgustovsky Canal. We can here recall a famous French song — Voyage, Voyage… We are in the centre of Europe and always heartily welcome guests into our homes.
By Victar Korbut