10 days visa-free: a new stage for Belarusian tourism
On 26 December, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka signed a new decree on a 10-days visa-free entry regime for foreigners. It expands upon last year’s decree on 5-day visa-free entrance to the Augustow zone in the Hrodna region. The changes are in tandem with a February 2017 decree, which grants tourists a Belarus-wide, five-day visa provided they fly into Minsk airport.
The new visa-free rules are valid from 2018 and allow citizens of 77 countries to spend 10 days without a visa in the Hrodna and Brest regions. No changes have been made for those who enter without a visa into Minsk airport, and as such can still only spend five days in Belarus, but are able to travel anywhere in the country.
The current visa-free regime appears to be a logical continuation of the process of visa liberalisation, which has been taking place within the country. However, the territorial and administrative restrictions on visa-free travel to Belarus still create inconveniences for tourists. Concerns of the KGB and the Internal Affairs Ministry create additional obstacles for the implementation for simpler and longer visa-free regimes.
What does the new 10-day visa-free regime imply?
Since 1 January, citizens of 77 countries have the right to enter Belarus without a visa and stay for 10 days to stay in certain parts of Hrodna and Brest regions. The new visa-free decree extends the area and the type of transport for visa-free travellers. In 2016, President Lukashenka signed a decree on the 5-day visa-free regime for those who enter the Hrodna region. Now foreigners can visit not only Hrodna but also Brest region for tourism purposes.
In 2017, to visit Belarus one should have crossed the border by bus or car at the border, or by plane into Minsk airport. Today, visa-free travellers can come to Hrodna and Brest regions by both road and rail. Visitors to Hrodna visitors can also take advantage of the local airport. Starting 2018, the visa-free territory applies to a whole visa-free region, rather than particular tourist sites as in 2017.
This year, however, a visa-free visit to Hrodna and Brest will become more bureaucratic in comparison to last year. Visa-free travellers at the border must display a permission form, which proves a purchase of service from a Belarusian tourist company. In practice, this means that foreigners must buy either a tour, accommodation or activity from an official travel agency. Foreigners still have to register at the local registration office—either at the Ministry of Internal Affairs, a tourism office near an attraction, or at a hotel—within 5 days of arrival.
Visa-Free Year: Achievements and Lessons
After the introduction of the visa-free regime, more foreigners have begun to visit Belarus. The Vechernij Grodno newspaper writes that many tourists from neighbouring Lithuania speak about low-cost products, medicines, alcohol, as well as the opportunity to visit theatres for just a few euros. Many foreigners also speak positively about the nightlife in Belarus.
The trial year of the visa-free regime has brought tangible material revenues. On 5 January, Belarusian Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makei said after one year of the visa-free regime, the city of Minsk’s profit from tourism increased by 35 per cent, writes news agency BelTA. The annual number of tourists reached almost 80,000, which is 12 per cent more than before the visa-free regime. Tourists from Poland and Lithuania are the biggest spenders.
At the same time, it is hard to say whether the visa-free regime has made a significant contribution to the Belarusian economy. According to a report from the World Travel & Tourism Council, tourism in Belarus amounted to only 1.9 per cent of GDP, which is 0.1 per cent more than in 2016 (when the visa-free regime did not exist). The World Travel & Tourism Council has ranked Belarus 139th among 185 countries by share of revenues from tourism to GDP. According to the report, Lithuania and Poland earn on average three times more from tourism services.
Despite this, Belarus continues to develop its tourist industry. Last year tourists to the first visa-free territory in Belarus, Hrodna, mentioned a shortage of hotels and low-cost accommodation. Since then, the number of hostels in the city has increased from one to three, and three more are to open in 2018. In addition, most menus in the local cafes and restaurants now have an English version.
Belarus also continues to improve contact with neighbouring countries for the development of tourism. This year, Ukrainian and Belarusian travel agencies are putting together a joint tour package of Lviv, in Ukraine, and Hrodna, in Belarus, said National Tourism Agency Representative Alena Lihimovich in an interview with online news portal TUT.by. In addition, the Polish airline company LOT is considering the launch of cheap flights into Hrodna airport, which has recently become open for visa-free entry.
Touristic Belarus: unclear cautiousness of authorities
When it comes to visa liberalisation, the concerns of certain state institutions prevent the establishment of a longer, 30-day visa-free regime. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Sports and Belarusian Customs have voted for 30-day visa-free entrance for tourists. The Internal Affairs Ministry and the KGB remain reluctant to agree to such a proposal. Perhaps they are wary of a negative Russian response to the introduction of the 5-day visa-free regime in Belarus. Russian media have expressed security concerns due to the absence of strict border controls between Belarus and Russia.
Belarus continues to expand agreements with many countries to establish a visa-free regime. As of today, Belarusians can enter 70 countries visa-free. In part, Belarus is gradually liberalising its visa policy to coincide with the European Games, a sporting event that Belarus is to host in 2019.
Since the implementation of the visa-free decree, Belarus has attracted tens of thousands of tourists. Tourist services have grown in tandem, providing a wider array choices and staffing English-speaking personnel.
However, by entering Belarus via Hrodna or Brest, foreigners cannot go beyond the visa-free zones in the two regions. Also, tourists have to buy tours to Belarus through Belarusian travel companies. An extra hinderance is compulsory visa registration process. It may take almost half a day to register, because of bureaucratisation of the process. If tourists do follow all the formalities or not register, they may be fined. In sum, despite the updated conditions of the visa-free regime, visa-free tourism to Belarus remains difficult due to territorial and duration limits, as well as to the increasing bureaucratisation of tourist travel.
Environmental protection in Belarus: are the rankings misleading?
In the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy’s recently published environmental performance index (EPI), Belarus took 35th place in the world. According to the rating, Belarus performs fairly well in protecting human health and ecosystems compared with many other countries.
However, Belarusians themselves express concern about the ecological situation in Belarus, says recently conducted research by Belarus-based organisation SATIO. For example, one in eight Belarusians still live in areas polluted by radiation after the Chernobyl catastrophe.
While authorities continue to sidetrack policies and problems, Belarus’s full environmental potential remains unattainable. Belarus needs more forward-thinking green policies and the authorities must improve cooperation with environmental activists.
EPI and environmental contradictions in Belarus
The Environmental Performance Index (EPI) appears to place Belarus among the greenest countries. Based on around 20 indicators, EPI assesses two main areas: protection of human health and protection of ecosystems. Belarus took the 35th position with the highest possible rate for ‘access to electricity’ and the lowest rate for ‘air pollution PM 2.5 exceedance.’ Finland took first place among 180 countries, and Somalia the last.
Although the EPI results might appear surprising, the index reflects only several aspects of environmental policy. For instance, EPI does not access radiation pollution. This could explain why Belarus and Ukraine take such high positions, 35th and 44th respectively. For instance, Radioactive Environmental Monitoring created by the European Commission names Belarusian city Brahin and Ukrainian Chernobyl as the most radiation polluted in Europe. Including radiation indicators in the EPI would significantly lower Belarus’s rank.
The Chernobyl catastrophe imposed serious circumstances upon Belarus’s environment. Air quality is one example. According to WHO, Belarus still takes the third place in the air pollution death rate per 100,000 people. That is, while China may have a higher total volume of deaths from air pollution, if deaths are measured per 100,000, then Belarus’s air is much deadlier than China’s.
Today, every eighth Belarusian lives in the territory polluted by radioactive caesium, reports the Department for the Liquidation of Consequences of the Chernobyl Catastrophe. Belarus has suffered more than any other country from Chernobyl. Its effects will negatively influence Belarus’s environment and ecology for the foreseeable future.
However, the state has aimed certain policies to engage with existing environmental problems. In 2010, authorities cancelled the state monopoly on energy production, which has resulted in open opportunities for private companies. Thus, due to mobile operator Velcom, Belarus now has a large solar power plant in the most polluted area in the country, the town Brahin. Despite this, Belarus still obtains only around 1 per cent of its energy from renewable sources.
Furthermore, Belarus remains behind many countries in managing the waste disposal. In 2016, Belarus has recycled only 16 per cent of its waste. Indeed, recycling trends have improved. For example, the country uses waste material as a fuel in certain power plants. However, authorities are reluctant to recycle various other types of waste. Additionally, the state remains the only one responsible for waste disposal, which excludes non-state solutions.
Perhaps most importantly, the EPI rating data reflects only what is provided by the authorities. Belarusian officials present data to the international agencies without including independent data from non-governmental actors. Thus, instances such as the mass logging of forests remain hidden by the Belarusian authorities. In Poland, by contrast, civil society is protesting against allegedly commercial deforestation. Their efforts have received widespread media attention. Meanwhile, the Belarusian campaigns against logging remain largely invisible.
Clean and cheap: What do tourists think about Belarus?
The number of tourists in Belarus continues to rise. In the fall, Minsk has become the top city visited by tourists among all CIS countries, reports agency TurStat. After Belarus introduced a 5-day visa-free regime, the number of tourists has increased by 12 per cent. Around 700-800 thousand foreigners visit Minsk annually.
Cheap prices and clean streets remain among the things most noted by tourists. According to the question-answer webpage Quora, according to data from tourists, visitors to Minsk highlight cleanness of the city. Online news portal TUT.by has published a video where visa-free tourists say clean streets and cheap prices are among Belarus’s main advantages. Among others, tourists from neighbouring countries often compliment the quality of Belarusian roads.
One of the main things tourists recommend avoiding in Belarus is tap water. Although some places the water might be clean, tourist webpage ‘isthewatersafetodrink’ includes Belarus in a list of the countries where unbottled water is generally unsafe for drinking.
Belarus’s environmental potential
Despite Belarus’s overstated environmental performance, the country has strong potential to become an ecologically clean country. Belarus has thousands of lakes, forests and swamps. These resources still appear to be less exploited than in neighbouring countries. The success of such civic campaigns such as “In Defence of Belarusian Swamps” demonstrates a certain openness of among the Belarusian authorities to cooperate with civic organisations on environmental issues in the country.
Belarus’s nuclear power plant (NPP) project has slowed down the implementation of other alternative energy projects, such as the construction of power generating windmills. Belarusian authorities calculate the NPP will produce more energy than Belarus needs. However, neighbours such as Poland and Lithuania intend to avoid buying energy from the station.
Additionally, on occasion the authorities challenge environmental activists, which can prevent effective cooperation. For example, the authorities largely ignored environmentalists’ criticisms of the NPP project. In general, Belarus’s environmental activists tend to face obstacles on the path to encouraging environmental progress in Belarus.
By contrast, the authorities are all too ready declare the success of their environmental policies. For instance, authorities claim to protect the largest remaining primeval forest in Europe, Belavezha forest. At the same time, they introduce programmes for the commercial logging of Belavezha forest.
In sum, the high rank awarded to Belarus in the EPI demonstrates ongoing environmental progress in the country. However, such rankings would be closer to reality if they were to include information from both government officials and environmentalists.