Inbound Tourism in Belarus: Rosy Plans, Feeble Measures
Belarus aspires to attract half as many foreign tourists by 2015 as in 2011 and to create over hundred regional tourism brands. However, so far, official plans are restrained by procrastination and poor practical moves. Without proactive measures such as visa facilitation and tourism liberalisation, the adopted plans will remain unrealistic.
Dynamics of Poland-Belarus border crossings serves as a good illustration of the negative consequences of visa regime which Belarus maintains for the EU citizens. Since 2003 the difference in numbers among the Poland citizens’ entries to Belarus and Ukraine rose many times. Ukraine kept visa-free regime for the EU citizens and helped attract more foreign visitors. Intensification of people-to-people contacts at the Poland-Belarus border is further hampered by the stalled small border traffic agreement.
New Zealanders Are Coming
According to Belarus National Statistics Committee, in 2011 the number of arrivals of foreign citizens to Belarus reached almost 6 million. The figure does not include crossings of Russia-Belarus border and arrivals for permanent residence. According to the official statistics, circa 60% of total arrivals are usually made for private reasons and about 30% make transit trips. Business and tourism purposes account only for about 7% and 2% correspondingly.
Russia traditionally tops the list of the countries that give the biggest share of foreign tourists to Belarus. Interestingly, in 2011 New Zealand with 3,085 tourists followed Russia (83,843) and Turkey (3,596) and left Lithuania (3,170) and Poland (2,983) behind.
New Zealand’s leadership seems even more inconceivable if one takes into account that only 18 tourists from these remote islands visited Belarus in 2010. These odd figures underline shortcomings of the official Belarusian statistics which counts as tourists only those individuals who come with tourist visas.
Earlier, trips of New Zealanders who came to Warsaw airport and headed to Moscow via Belarus were counted as transit. A sudden change may well have occurred due to the national agencies’ play with statistics in order to comply with the official tourism development five-year plan.
According to the State program on tourism development for the years 2011-2015, the number of foreign tourists (it was 130 thousand in 2011) is to increase annually and reach 190 thousand by 2015. Export of services by the foreign tourists is planned to reach half a billion USD (it was USD 138 mln in 2010).
Main destinations of inbound and outbound tourism
As noted above, tourism figures are very relative as no permanent monitoring is in place and merely individuals with tourist visas are taken into account. However, official statistics roughly illustrates the main tourism destinations.
In 2011, only 10,6 thousand Poles, 3,2 thousand Lithuanians and 600 Latvians came to Belarus with tourist visas. Other countries (besides Russia, Turkey and newly emerged New Zealand) whose citizens relatively often visit Belarus with the purposes of tourism include Great Britain, Germany, and Italy. The number of Italian tourists is gradually going down from year to year, with less than 2 thousand Italians in 2011 compared to more than 4 thousand in 2007.
Countries most frequently visited by Belarusian tourists in 2011 were Russia, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Egypt, Italy, Lithuania, Poland, Turkey and Czech Republic. They hosted 87% of all outgoing Belarusian tourists.
Distribution of inbound and outbound tourism in 2010 by countries, percent of total
Source: National statistical committee of the Republic of Belarus
Poland-Belarus border crossings are a manifest illustration of the negative consequences of visa regime between Belarus and EU countries. Belarusians cross the Polish border nearly as often as Ukrainians do, as the graphs show below.
At the same time, the number of travels of Poles across the Belarusian border is many times lower than in Ukrainian case. As we can see, between 2002 and 2008, Poles’ crossings of the Ukrainian border increased more than five times.
In 2007, the share of Poland’s citizens that crossed Poland-Belarus border was only 13%, while it reached 48% for Poland-Ukraine border.
The striking difference in the crossings of the border with Belarus and Ukraine by Poland’s citizens is the result of visa regime in the former and absence of visa requirements for short-term trips in the latter. It also is worth keeping in mind that the crossings of Poland-Ukraine border further intensified with the launch of the local border traffic regime in mid-2009.
Graphs: Number of Poland-Belarus and Poland-Ukraine border crossings, 1990-2008
Source: Polish Border Guard. Note: The absolute majority of the crossings under the “Foreigners” category means Belarusians or Ukranians correspondingly, with some share of other nationals in transit.
Tourism Brands Plans Frustrated
Belarus is a promising place for development of several kinds of inbound tourism. First, it has transit tourism potential because many Russian citizens travel to the European Union by bus. Second, Belarus has much to offer in recreational tourism with its good quality-price ratio to offer. Third, Belarus can develop rural tourism and thematic tours development across the places of Jewish, Polish and Lithuanian heritage.
The state tourism program required regional executive committees to develop tourist brands for each of the 118 Belarus’s districts, 6 regions and the capital by the first half of 2011. In fact, as late as by half-2012 a winner of a tender to develop the city brand for Minsk was announced. The Britain-based company INSTID was awarded a contract to create a logo and the signature style of Belarusian capital by the end of the year. No news about regional brands so far.
The state program also aims at setting up tourist information centers abroad to complement the only centre of this kind in Warsaw. Besides a need to develop informative work, there is much to do about tourism infrastructure inside the country. Belarus has only a handful of good camping sites and hostels. If you decide to visit one of them, you should check out this online catalogue with camping gears.
So far, the government appears not to be serious about visa facilitation for EU citizens. Belarus has not yet replied to the invitation to launch negotiations on visa facilitation that European Commission sent in June 2011. Official Minsk is allegedly suspicious of the readmission agreement with the EU that is linked to the visa facilitation negotiations.
In the absence of visa facilitation, Belarus adopts measures that only partly improve business climate for tourism industry. The recent example of such include the July presidential decree that introduces preferential tax system for the tourist companies and widens the list of tourist services that are granted VAT exemption.
Andrei is an analyst at the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies in Minsk.
Parliamentary Elections – No Chances Taken
The Belarusian authorities ran the elections taking no chances to ensure the maintenance of the political status quo. Opposition candidates who offered even the hint of a threat were not registered, some TV debates were not broadcast to prohibit any advocating of an election boycott, while the traditional manipulation of the vote count and turnout was widespread.
Meanwhile, the opposition was unable to capitalise on the chance offered by the campaign period to change their existing status quo. In particular, the opportunity to transform their perception in society from dissidents focused only on opposing the state – to a political opposition providing a realistic alternative to the current regime, was largely missed.
The elections did, however, allow an assessment of the potential and capabilities of the opposition in Belarus today.
Three Strategies of the Opposition
Opposition political parties and groupings were split three ways on their strategic approach towards the elections – although there were nuances in the paths taken by the different groupings.
Firstly, Just World and the candidates representing Tell the Truth and For Freedom sought to maximise the opportunity provided by the elections and run full campaigns until polling day.
A second group, headed by the United Civic Party, wished to use the legal opportunities to campaign, including access to TV and radio, by running candidates. However, they planned from the start to withdraw their candidates before the five-day early voting period to protest against the unfair nature of the campaign.
Other groups argued for a full boycott of the poll, including the Christian Democrats and the “European Belarus” movement linked to former presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov and Charter 97.
The different tactics chosen were not necessarily a problem for the opposition. Sufficient common ground existed on messages about the need for change and responsive government to improve lives – only the call to action on election day was different.
Problems for the opposition emerged when leaders stopped focusing on common ground and instead attacked each other for divergent approaches. Boycotters were blamed for helping Lukashenka win the election without any effort, whereas the “run till the end” candidates were accused of helping Lukashenka show that the elections were democratic after all.
The election campaign was also beset with various conspiracy theories – most of which were summarily destroyed, such as the whispering campaign that Milinkevich had done a deal to get elected into Parliament, which quietly disappeared when he was not even registered.
This infighting within opposition ranks and attacks against those who had different strategies played into the hands of the authorities and helped to weaken overall public outreach of the democratic opposition. Ultimately it was this trend – more than the actual differences in strategies – that hurt the opposition in the end.
Opposition Campaign Highlights
Some highlights did emerge from the margins of the campaign, with individual opposition figures and groupings coming out with more credit and reputations boosted. Tell the Truth confirmed their status as the most active political organisation in Belarus today, while Anatoly Liabedzka turned out to be the most eloquent and visible proponent of the boycott initiative.
Meanwhile, some independent candidates such as Andrei Yurkou in Gorki and the Social Democrats (Hramada) can also be considered to have used their campaign wisely, while Alexander Milinkevich made a splash return to politics and prior to his non-registration his team was among the most active in the country.
Another positive was the “For Free Elections” partisan observation effort where the different opposition groupings came together in different regions to work on a common project, even while mutual accusations were aired in the online media.
This demonstrated that constructive collaboration amongst democratic forces is possible, especially as the observation included political groups boycotting as well as those running. Dependent on grassroots activists to observe and multi-partisan teams to coordinate data collection, they were able to work together towards a common goal with little in-fighting or controversy.
Why Low Turnout
Clearly, though, the electorate was also not entirely naïve about the electoral process. Many people were indeed convinced that they did not have a choice. Even the official turnout – at 74.3% – was the lowest in recent times.
Yet, it is difficult though to attribute the low turnout recorded by independent observers in many polling stations directly to parts of the opposition calling for a boycott. Signs of heightened political interest which elections usually generate in the population were missing.
There was almost no political advertising across the country, and nothing in Minsk at all to suggest that there was an election on – undoubtedly a response to the authorities wish for a passive electorate.
Indeed broadly people were simply not engaged in the campaign and many were simply not interested in voting for (or even deliberately boycotting elections to) a parliament which they perceived would do nothing for them.
In part due to the non-registration of key candidates – alongside the wider electoral climate – very few points of interest on election-day remained – especially as in 16 electoral districts government supported candidates stood unopposed.
Such points of interest were limited to observers’ attempts to document cases of inflated turnouts, whether observers would be able to see the vote count and how the authorities would deal with the curious case of one electoral district (Gomel 36) where the official government candidate withdrew discredited by a corruption scandal and only a Liberal Democratic Party candidate remained.
Official Election Results
The official results showed that 109 of the 110 constituencies had their seats filled with government supporters. Belaya Rus, the pro-government movement, later claimed that 63 of these were their members. The remaining seat was Gomel 36 where the LDP candidate lost by a landslide to “against all” and the election will be re-run only in 2014 to coincide with the Local Government elections.
As for the transparency of the vote count, the OSCE/ODIHR observers were not given a meaningful opportunity to observe the count in 37 per cent of polling stations, a slightly higher figure than in 2010, a clear indicator that there was no improvement in the transparency of the electoral process. Domestic nonpartisan observers, meanwhile, were as restricted as in previous elections.
Failure to Capitalise on Election Campaign Opportunities
The opportunity for the opposition to argue that they were the answer to people’s concerns and the choice for the country was largely missed.
The vast majority of the opposition was unable or unwilling to move the agenda beyond the boycott or outright opposition to the regime to issues that votes care more about, such as the economy and price rises, health care and education, and present themselves as a credible alternative.
As a whole, opposition leaders all too often seemed to be targeting Western media, observers, and politicians– attempting to reinforce their arguments about the unfair environment – rather than connecting with the electorate in Belarus.
Whichever tactics or strategies the opposition takes in the period ahead, it is in the interest of the opposition to remain focused on reaching out to the population with concrete messages, rather than generic anti-Lukashenka rhetoric.
Looking ahead, and in spite of the lack of major progress during the parliamentary election, the challenge for the opposition remains unchanged – to push for increased space in Belarus free of the state.
This would be a step in the direction of a more open Belarus and a way to create momentum towards change in the future. To accomplish this, opposition groups should find ways to work together instead of attacking each other and reinforce each other’s efforts to promote a democratic Belarus.
Dr Alastair Rabagliati