Hrodna is learning to handle more foreign tourists
Around 1,100 tourists, a record number, visited Hrodna Region between 26 March and 2 April 2017, according to Belta news agency. Since October 2016, it is possible to visit the region for five days visa-free.
This growth in tourism has occurred despite inconvenient entry procedures: the authorities restrict visits to five days, limit where tourists can go, and prohibit entering the country via certain modes of transportation.
Over the last months, infrastructure, food services, and lodging in Hrodna Region have been developing. However, attracting more foreign investment and modernising housing, air, and railways would do much to increase the capability of the city to host more tourists.
Tourism Development in Hrodna
The amount of tourists in Hrodna continues to grow. In total, more than 7,500 tourists have come to Hrodna since October 2016 thanks to the new visa-free regime.
The majority of visitors come from Lithuania or Poland. Lithuanian and Polish travel agencies are popularising weekend trips to Belarus through package deals. For instance, Beta, a Lithuanian travel agency, offers single-day tours called 'Royal Hrodna' for $20. The tour includes visits to churches and historical places with buses departing from three Lithuanian cities: Vilnius, Kaunas, and Alytus. Since October, Hrodna Region has also been attracting visitors from Latvia, Germany, Italy and 35 other countries.
Augustow Canal is gradually becoming one of the most popular destinations. In response to increased interest, authorities plan to open new border checkpoint at the territory of Augustow canal on 28 April.
Liasnaja-Rudavka will become a border checkpoint for boats, pedestrians, and bicycles. Starting in late April, several new 50-km bicycle routes will be built along the canal.
Belarus can also expect increased tourism in other parts of the country as well. In February 2017, authorities announced visa-free entrance for nationals of 80 countries if they arrive via Minsk airport.
Moreover, according to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Belarus plans to introduce 12/14-day visa-free entrance instead of five. Belarusian minister of tourism and sports Aliaxandr Šamko reported an increased demand at health resorts. This factor may also contribute to extending the legal length of visa-free visits.
Travel Restrictions for Tourists
While travelling around Hrodna, tourists are restricted to car and bus travel. Several factors could explain this: Lithuania decommissioned the railway connection to Druskininkai after the fall of the USSR. The future of the Hrodna-Warsaw and Hrodna-Bialystok connections was also called into question in late 2015. The instability of rail connections may explain the decision not to include rail travel in the visa-free zone.
Recently, customs officers in Hrodna stopped Polish producer Piotr Dudanowicz and two German musicians at the border and forced them to return to the nearby Polish town of Kuznica. The three foreigners had travelled by train to Hrodna instead of taking the bus. The musicians had to wait more than 10 hours for the next bus in order to come back to Belarus.
Airplane travel to Hrodna is also impossible. Hrodna airport, like all other airports in Belarus, has failed to introduce budget flights. Moreover, authorities did not include the airport in the visa-free zone. Officials still voice doubts about introducing budget airlines in the Minsk airport due to the 'discrepancy of low-cost flights with the rules of Minsk National Airport', according to chairman of Minsk national airport Dmitry Melnikian.
The number of tourists increased but complicated procedures and small print create inconveniences for travellers. Customs officials count the day of arrival and departure as whole days. Experienced tourists advise crossing passport control after midnight if the flight arrives several hours before. In March, two Canadian musicians were fined $3,000 for counting the days wrong, reports KYKY.org.
Can Hrodna Accommodate More Tourists?
Although the amount of tourists continues to grow, services for tourists remain limited in variety and quality. Only 8 hotels and one hostel function in Hrodna, according to Booking.com. In cities with comparable populations in neighbouring countries, the numbers differ significantly. The Polish city of Bialystok has 19 hotels and nine hostels, Lithuanian Kaunas has 24 hotels and seven hostels, and Ukrainian Lviv has 20 times more hotels.
However, over the last months, Hrodna has been developing infrastructure for tourists. The second hostel with cheap prices (around $5 per night) opens in May. However, both hostels can only accommodate 100 tourists. Recently, Burger King announced the opening of a facility in Hrodna, making it the first international fast food chain in the city.
The lack of English-speakers continues to be a significant problem for tourists. Polish and Lithuanian tourist groups often travel on guided tours and have a guide who speaks their language. However, for tourists from other countries, communication remains a challenge. Recently, around 15 waiters in central cafes and restaurants enrolled in special English courses.
Some tourist activities are not well suited to foreigners. The number of tourist agencies in Hrodna dealing with inbound tourism has increased compared to last year, from 10 to 70. Nevertheless, the city currently lacks a tourist information centre. While Augustow canal is preparing several bicycle routes, bicycle infrastructure in Hrodna remains inadequate, according to the cyclist organisation Vela Hrodna. Additionally, there are few possibilities to rent quality bicycles close to the bus station.
A recent journalistic investigation conducted in Minsk by Alena Vasiljeva claimed that certain unique traits of Belarus could be turned into national brands. Safety and the relative absence of racism, as some travellers have noticed, makes Belarus different from many countries. Foreigners have also picked up on the Soviet nature of architecture and even daily life. Lithuanian tourists have praised the quality of Belarusian underwear and coffee.
Even though Belarus has made important strides in improving the tourism sector, more work is necessary. The first step should be increasing the number of hotels, at least to the level of neighbouring Kaunas or Bialystok. Another vital step would be improving the level of English for staff in hospitality industries, improving tourist centres, and working on bicycle infrastructure. Another option to make foreign visitors feel more welcome could be creating an English-version of video guides. The project 'Tourism without a bag' could provide a fitting example.
Simplifying investment opportunities for foreigners would also contribute to the development of the city. This would allow Hrodna Region to handle an increasing amount of tourists and reach a higher level of development.