Getting to know Belarus: Recreation and Tourism
As the World Hockey Championship 2014 approaches, the organising committee and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Belarus announced that they plan to suspend the perplexing visa regime to facilitate tourist travel. Ticket-holders during the month-long event in May of next year can travel to Belarus without visas.
Though Belarus usually earns only a modest rank among world tourist destinations, lacking attractive sandy beaches, thrilling skiable mountains or other list-topping attractions, Belarusians eagerly anticipate opening their doors to the international tourism arena. From the walls of Mir castle to the depths of the Belavezhskaya Pushcha forest to the Minsk Tractor factory in the capital, Belarus offers hidden treasures to the adventurous person looking for diversions unlisted in the pages of a guidebook.
Ask any Belarusian for recommendations about the more typical tourist sites. However, genuine Belarus will not be found in the pages of a guidebook. Relics of Soviet history and sites of everyday life turn heads, remaining overlooked because of the country’s isolation. Calling them tourist “destinations” may be a stretch, but they guarantee a distinct Belarusian experience for the curious visitor.
Some sites in the capital, Minsk, warrant a visit whether or not your guidebook tells you to. A short Metro ride will whisk you off to the Minsk Tractor Factory, which is among the most remarkable remnants of the Soviet era. Though the namesake has been officially expunged, the front of the factory continues to proclaim its former affiliation with Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.
Still in production today, the tractor factory churns out thousands of tractors every year. Entering the factory is an impossible feat for those without diplomatic connections, but from outside the gates you can bear witness to a true relic of Soviet industry and even take a photograph with the vintage model tractor by the front entrance.
If the landscape of Belarus becomes tiresome, a visit to the chalk quarry by the town of Vaukavysk in the Grodno region will reinvigorate you. Keep in mind, that, due to limited public transportation to the region, you may need to rent a car to get there. Driving along the roads, you will notice that the dust starts clouding up more than usual. Sandy mounds rise out of the ground on the distant edges of fields and farmlands and beyond those mounds, giant craters sink into the ground. Park your car and walk a bit closer to find bright blue water pooled in deep golden basins edged with bright green flora. The natural colour palette of these grand canyons can surprise seasoned travelers and unsuspecting locals alike!
For the active traveller, seeing Belarus by bicycle will provide an authentic perspective on the more unseen parts of the country. Just beyond the city limits tourists can bear witness to the stark contrast between metropolitan and country life. Although the infrastructure leaves something to be desired for most, any cyclist can handle the mostly flat terrain, even without a bike path. If you need inspiration for a destination, the ethnographic parks of Strochytsy and Dudutki (located five and forty-five kilometers from Minsk, respectively) provide a number of interesting exhibitions and tourist services. Dudutki even offers the noteworthy opportunity to taste the otherwise contraband liquor, Samahon.
For Hockey Fans Only
Despite all the attractions available for tourists in Belarus, the infrastructure comes up short in the matter of serving potential visitors. Obtaining a visa, finding a hotel to stay in, communicating with locals and getting around, while possible, demands attention and commitment that other countries do not. Luckily, most of this is in the process of changing on the occasion of the World Hockey Championship, taking place in Minsk in April and May of 2014.
The visa regime in Belarus changes on a regular basis and its status will likely determine whether or not you will make your trip at all. Due to reciprocal visa policies, the Belarusian government requires at least single-entry tourist visas for visitors from most countries. Previously such visas cost a minimum of $160 for visitors from the United States, and this price increased depending on the length of the stay or the number of entries requested, pending approval from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Further challenges include locating the necessary consular documents and communicating with government officials who do not know the meaning of “customer service.” For the average non-Russian speaker, these challenges may seem insurmountable. Fortunately, in an effort to diminish such difficulties and increase attendance, the government has decided to lift the visa regime for those holding tickets to World Hockey Championship games for the duration of the event.
Additionally, the Belarusian government has taken on to reshape hospitality, communications and operations for the upcoming hockey event. Development companies are building new hotels and hospitality management is insisting that staff speak English or some other foreign language. Even lower-level services, such as taxi companies are encouraging and teaching their staff to learn at least basic English in order to ease communication with international clients. The city of Minsk is bracing itself linguistically and technologically for the expected influx of foreigners, but at a price to its residents.
At what cost?
This spring, the Ministry of Education declared that the months of April and May would be school vacation periods for public universities in Minsk, requiring that students vacate their dormitories during that period. During the championship, the space will be used instead for cheap tourist accommodations. Furthermore, various Minsk firms are hiring students for translating and service jobs based on their specialties on “internship” terms. While they consider the break inconvenient, students hope that the professional experience will have long-term benefits for their careers and the Belarusian economy.
Though Minsk is getting made over for the world championship, much of the country will remain untouched by the new inflow of tourism. Though many consider secondary roads in Belarus better than their equivalents in Poland, Ukraine, and Russia, investment in improving these roads will likely be put on hold while the funds are rerouted to the capital. Other areas of interest such as the regional capitals of Vitebsk, Grodno and Brest may get some fraction of the funds, but while the spotlight shines on Minsk, the capital will be doing the best it can to impress visitors.
Despite reservations about the distribution of tourism investment, most Belarusians and would-be tourists hope that the lowering of the visa regime and the cleaned-up image of Minsk will provide tourists with a positive impression of Belarus. Such prospects would mean an increase of incoming tourism not just for the period of the Hockey Championship, but for the long-term as well. Since Belarus does have a surprising amount to offer, a boost in the tourist economy may be just what the country needs to cultivate a new sense of self-esteem.
Monika was a Fulbright scholar teaching in Belarus in 2012-2013.