image2 19.06.2017

How Belarus is developing its tourism and how the European Union is involved in this

By Anton Radniankou

What we already have, and what we could have, if we take the issue of tourism developmentseriously. 

For the tourism industry, 2017 should be a turning point. The beginning of the year was marked by a truly revolutionary change: unexpectedly, for many, Belarus waived its visa requirement for citizens from most developed countries. Of course, so far this only concerns certain tourist destinations (such as the Augustow Canal and Grodno), and arrivals at the airport. Just one in eight foreigners come to the country this way, but still the developments are positive.

The tourism industry, which in recent years has been stagnant, is in need of such bold steps. Year-on-year, the number of foreigners arriving in the country has been falling (30% decrease compared with 2013). Organised tourist groups (i.e. those who use the services of travel agencies) show a similar tendency: a 25% decrease compared to 2010 for visitors from non-CIS countries.

At this point, we need to mention a problem with Belarusian statistics. We cannot yet say for sure how many tourists arrived in the country (and, by the same token, we cannot indicate the exact contribution of the industry to GDP). The State Border Committee keeps track of border crossings (apart from at the Belarusian-Russian border where there is no border control), while the National Statistical Committee does not know how to count individual tourists (i.e. those who do not use travel agencies).

Nevertheless, the World Travel and Tourism Council estimates the contribution of tourism in Belarus in 2016 to amount to 1.9% of GDP, 3.3% of exports and $935 million in revenue. The experiences of Poland and Ukraine show that visa waiving can lead to an immediate increase in the number of visitors by 20%, which will add at least another $180 million to the export of services.

Such changes may result in positive dynamics for the development of the regions, where tourism can become a major area of growth. It will be very useful for agritourism and farmsteads (i.e. farm stays for tourists), for instance. These are growing in number, but the majority of farmsteads still focus on domestic tourists, or visitors from Russia.

At the same time, the dynamic development of tourism is often hindered by a lack of consistent local strategies and cooperation between all local stakeholders. Those regions that are engaged in the creation of tourism clusters display a breakthrough in growth, even in comparison with neighbouring districts.

Obviously, when the cluster approach provides benefits, it is necessary to work with it more actively.

Jesuit castle, Mscislaŭ

Today, projects supported by the European Union are among the leading implementers of innovative approaches. Interaction through the two cross-border cooperation programmes "Latvia-Lithuania-Belarus" and "Poland-Belarus-Ukraine" is particularity active. Through these two programmes alone, the European Union allocates tens of millions of euros for tourism development in the cross-border regions (about €30 million for joint projects in 2014-2020).

We spoke with representatives of some of the most successful initiatives, in order to understand how the development of tourism can change their regions.

Project: COMUS "Community-Led Urban Strategies in Historic Towns" (2015-2017).

Total project budget: EUR 650,000

What is happening through the project: Mscislaŭ, together with eight other towns from the Eastern Partnership countries, is trying to involve its local community and residents in the creation of a strategy for sustainable development of the town, to encourage business development. It will focus on enhancing tourism and restoration and management of historical sites.

By the end of the project, technical documentation for the restoration of five major sites in the town will have been developed. Following this, these investment projects are expected to attract funds from the World Bank or major European donors.

Sviatlana Zubrynovich (Mscislaŭ District Executive Committee): Our project is inter-sectoral; we are trying to engage representatives of public associations, active citizens and local communities in its implementation. In our work on the vision for the town's development, we engaged economists, urbanists, architects, experts in historical and cultural values, representatives of creative industries, and even students and school pupils.

At first, the townspeople treated the initiative with caution, but they are now taking the initiative themselves, expressing ideas on how the town can develop further, what it is lacking and what can be done differently. The authorities also have a vision, as the citizens do, and we are all learning to interact.

What we lack for better tourism development in Belarus:

  • We have a lot of historic sites, but not enough effort is made to promote them.
  • Towns do not have navigation systems and signposting; sometimes tourists simply do not know how to get to a certain site.
  • For western tourists, there is also a language issue. If it weren’t for that, tourism development would be easier.
Information centre in Polack

Project: Bella Dvina 2: Fostering capacity for tourism development in the Latgale-Utena-Viciebsk cross-border region (2012-2014).

Total project budget: EUR 1,789,387

What happened through the projectThe "Bella Dvina" tourist brand continued to be developed for the cross-border region around the Western Dvina. Numerous tourist routes were designed and recreation places were equipped for travelers. An international marketing campaign was launched. The project has contributed to the organisation of various tourism, sports, cultural and music festivals.

The project has given a significant boost to the development of tourism in the Viciebsk region. It has helped local players to implement several other tourist projects supported, among others, by the European Union. New partnerships with colleagues from Latvia and Lithuania allow us to jointly promote the common touristic product and plan new initiatives.

Ivan Shchadranok, director of "Interaction" Fund: Thanks to the project, we built true sustainable cooperation between partners in the region, a continuous exchange of experiences and practices between experts, development of common approaches to problem-solving and promotion of the tourism brand. We managed to do this despite certain obstacles which are still created by the border.

The main thing is that this cooperation did not disappear with the end of the project. Several joint projects have been implemented, and some are due to begin in the near future.

What we lack for better tourism development in Belarus:

  • The visa issue brings limitations. Visas need to be issued for more than five days, and not only at the airport. So far, the vast majority of foreign tourists are Russians. There is nothing wrong with this, our partners from Latvia and Lithuania are focused on Russian visitors as well. But attracting tourists from Western Europe would be a very positive factor.
  • We should improve the quality of services. We do not have a lot of competition, the demand for tourist services is not great, and therefore the quality of services falls short. Sometimes we lack a professional business approach and sustainable development of tourism as a product. It is not enough to simply develop a brand, we need to constantly engage and continue building it.
  • We should not forget about domestic tourism. This is especially important for remote areas where a foreigner would not travel. In this case, only internal tourists can lay the foundations for a quality tourism product. They can take a car, and in a few hours arrive to your farmstead and spend the weekend there.
  • We lack an integrated approach to the development of tourism at local level. Appropriate support from the local authorities would be very useful, not a onetime action, but support within a certain strategy. We have not yet fully understood that tourism is an industry that could become one of the main sources of revenue for regions.
Restored Michał Kleofas Ogiński Manor in Zaliessie

Project: The use of historic farmsteads and their adaptation to contemporary cultural needs (2012-2014).

Total project budget: EUR 575,268

What happened in the project: The Smarhoń authorities joined forces with Trakai in order to restore its historic farmsteads. The Palace Hall was restored in Zaliessie in Michał Kleofas Ogiński Manor and adapted for concerts, conferences, seminars. A broad information campaign was organised in the media. Such efforts yielded tangible results: in 2016, the museum was visited by about 25,000 tourists – this is 6.5 times more than in 2014 (when the museum was visited by only 3,740 tourists).

Tacciana Razhava (Smarhoń District Executive Committee): Thanks to the project we have had a great opportunity to learn how our Lithuanian partners restore their historic sites. In particular, we are interested in the restoration of parks, as the work in our park has not yet started. We managed to restore the concert hall of the Manor, which has always been known for its musical parties. And through the information campaign, we managed not only to spread information about the project, but also to help Belarusians rediscover the Michał Kleofas Ogiński Manor. This in particular helped us to make a breakthrough in attracting new tourists.

What we lack for better tourism development in Belarus:

  • Infrastructure. Modern tourists want comfortable conditions and all the little things are important: roads, food, public transport, places to stay for the night. With such gorgeous historical, natural and cultural monuments, the main task is to create an appropriate infrastructure around them.
  • Event tourism. We need to develop brand activities, actively promote them and create an integrated tourist product.

Ethnic festival

Project: Improvement of cross-border region attractiveness through the introduction of ethno-cultural resources into the tourist activities. A trip to the ethnic fairy tale (2012-2014).

Total project budget: EUR 1,270,306

What happened in the project: The Hrodna and Suwałki  regions were actively engaged in ethnic tourism. After reconstruction, the Hudzievičy State Museum of Literature and Local History received new infrastructure and modern museum funds. The Yauchim Karski Museum in the First Hrodna Gymnasium received new information and an exhibition centre, which now hosts temporary exhibitions and events. Also, an encyclopedia of ethno-cultural and natural tourist sites was created for the region.

Vitali Karnialiuk (Tourism Department of Yanka Kupala State University of Hrodna): The Belarusian-Polish cross-border region has the potential for development; it has the layer of cultural heritage needed for the development of ethnic tourism and we have enough curators and promoters of Belarusian traditional culture. However, the main pearl of Belarusian culture in the Hrodna region is the Hudzievičy State Museum of Literature and Local History. There is a wonderful collection of double weaving, a fantastic collection of manuscripts of Belarusian writers, a rich art gallery. Hudzievičy is as important for Belarusian culture as Kalozha Church, Mir and Krevo Castles and places connected with Adam Mickiewicz. This will all become important for foreigner visitors, but only after Belarusians themselves become interested in domestic tourism.

What we lack for better tourism development in Belarus:

  • Promotion of the country around the world. Unfortunately, we are relatively unknown.
  • Determining the priority directions of domestic tourism: ethnic tourism, "green" tourism (not reduced to hunting), business tourism (MICE).
  • Greater openness. This would create tourist demand, and thus improve what we can offer to tourists.