Sex Tours Save the Belarusian Tourist Industry
"We do not cultivate the idea of sex tourism in Belarus. But if [a foreign tourist] has an interest, let him look for it, meet girls and marry".
This is how the deputy Minister of Sports and Tourism Cheslau Shulha recently answered a question about the growing sex industry in Belarus on a state TV channel.
While the Belarusian authorities are talking about the prospects of sex tourism, the inflow of foreign tourists in general remains low. Belarus mostly attracts Russian citizens who come to rest at health resorts or gamble in casinos. Western tourists are still very rare. They do not want to pay for expensive visas only to find the lack of appropriate tourist infrastructure.
In 2014 Belarus will host the ice hockey World Championship. This high-profile event can boost the country’s tourist industry, as the authorities promise visa-free travel for all Westerners. But without proper deregulation of this sector of the economy the boost will not be sustainable and nothing but sex industry will remain the country's tourist brand.
Why Westerners are Rare in Belarus
Belarus boasts a favourable geographical location. It lies on the crossroads of major international roots from Germany and Poland to Russia and from the Black Sea to the Baltic Sea. This location makes it a potentially convenient destination for tourists from neighbouring and far-away countries.
However, the statistics show that the country receives miserable numbers of visitors. Because of the uncontrolled border with Russia it is difficult to assess the exact number of tourists that come to Belarus, but the estimate for 2011 is around 750,000. To put it in a comparative perspective, the capital of Lithuania, Vilnius — a relatively small city with the population of 540,000 — alone annually attracts more than 1.5 million tourists.
According to the director of the tourist company BelarusTurService Hennadzi Leushyn, about 80 per cent of tourists come from Russia. This is not surprising, since Belarus has an open border with its eastern neighbour and even no passport control. Moreover, the Russians, unlike Westerners, have no language problems in Belarus, where the majority of the population speak Russian as their first language.
Many Russians come to Belarus to use its growing gambling industry Read more
After the Russian authorities outlawed casinos across almost the whole country, Belarus was quick to offer its service. Many Russians come to Belarus to use its growing gambling industry.
Only 20 per cent of tourists (about 150,000) came from the rest of the world in 2011. Even fewer come from western countries. According to the Belarusian Statistics Committee, in 2011 the highest numbers of western tourists were from Turkey, Lithuania, New Zealand and Poland. Their absolute numbers were very small, varying between 2,000 and 3,000.
Abundant Talk but Little Result
Tourism is a regular issue on the government’s agenda. Several years ago Alexander Lukashenka demanded that Belarus should become a popular destination for tourists from around the world who would bring in lots of hard currency. After that his ministers began to implement various state projects to boost the attractiveness of Belarus for incoming tourists.
The authorities were hoping that Belarusian villages with their rural traditions and beautiful nature would appeal to hundreds of thousands of foreigners Read more
One of them was the development of agro-ecotourism. The authorities were hoping that Belarusian villages, with their rural traditions and beautiful nature, would appeal to hundreds of thousands of foreigners who prefer quiet rest to city sightseeing. They provided tax and other incentives for those entrepreneurs who wanted to invest in agro-ecotourism.
As a result, in 2011 1576 so-called agro-manors stood ready to accommodate agro-tourists. But the data of the Belarusian Statistics Committee show that this project is not as successful as the authorities had expected. Only 15 per cent of visitors of all the agro-manors in 2011 were from abroad. In the majority of cases (85 per cent) Belarusians themselves use them for holding weddings or other celebrations.
Despite frequent declarations, the government have failed to create even basic tourist infrastructure in Belarus. For example, there are only 34 hotels in the whole country that are certified according to international standards. Only two of them have 5 stars (hotels Europe and Crowne Plaza in Minsk) and three have 4 stars (hotels Minsk and Victoria in Minsk and hotel Luchesa in Vitebsk). At the same time there are very few low-cost hostels anywherein the country (only in Minsk and Brest).
The command of foreign languages among employees of Belarusian hotels, resorts, agro-manors and transport (railway and coach) companies remains very poor. Their websites often do not have English language sections. Furthermore, there are almost no signs in English, even in the capital – all are in Cyrillic alphabet which most Westerners cannot read.
The Visa Wall
Another Achilles heel of the Belarusian tourist industry is the “visa wall”. Visa regimes considerably complicate both incoming and outgoing tourism. Interestingly, nationals of only 19 states can enter Belarus without visas (however, there are specific regulations for each state). These states are the following:
- 10 member states of the Commonwealth of Independent States (excluding Turkmenistan);
For the rest of the world Belarusian visas are quite costly. For example, a single entry short-stay visa for an American citizen costs $160. A UK national will have to pay 75 pounds for the same type of Belarusian visa. And a German national €60.
on 31 May the government further complicated the visa procedure Read more
Moreover, on 31 May the government amended the national visa rules. They further complicated the visa procedure. Previously, all foreigners could get visas upon arrival at Minsk-2 airport. It was more expensive than receiving visas at Belarusian consulates abroad, but it saved lots of time. Now that the amendments are in force only residents of the countries with no Belarusian consulates can apply for visas after they arrive at Minsk-2 airport.
If the authorities really want to turn Belarus into a popular tourist destination the latest visa amendments look utterly strange.
Sex Tourism Develops Despite Anything
Perhaps the only sort of incoming tourism from western countries that is developping in Belarus despite any difficulties is sex tourism. Bad infrastructure and visa routine do not stop sex visitors.
Officially, the Belarusian legislation prohibits prostitution Read more
Officially, Belarusian legislation prohibits prostitution. And from time to time the police crackdown on networks of the sex business. However, the industry thrives. Everyone who has money and wishes for some sexual entertainment knows where to look for it. This kind of service is available for tourists in most hotels as well as in a number of special clubs. According to some insider sources, special sex tours to Belarus are regularly organised from certain Western European states and Turkey.
Sex tourism in Belarus is, of course, not as flourishing as in Ukraine. But it is definitely becoming a sizeable business. And it is not surprising, therefore, that even officials have started talking about this business in public, like a deputy Minister of Sports and Tourism did on state television a week ago.
World Cup Stimulus
In 2014 Belarus will host the World Ice Hockey Championship. It will be the most high-profile sporting event in the country’s sovereign history. No doubt, it will give a boost to the tourist industry. To benefit from this event the government should liberalise the tourist industry and free creativity of entrepreneurs from bureaucratic bondage. Otherwise Belarus will largely remain a sex sanctuary for westerners and a gambling destination for Russians.
Mark Chagall Exhibition in Minsk – Civil Society Digest
A Mark Chagall exhibition in the centre of Minsk last week became a shining example of civic-business cooperation.
The statute of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania also returned to Minsk after being purchased at a Moscow antiques auction for $45,000. The funds were raised as a result of a fundraising campaign initiated by the Mahiliou Historical Museum involving Belarusian citizens, businesses and even the National Bank.
Sannikov`s female defense lawyer was barred to leave the country due to accusations of “avoiding mandatory army service”. Freedom House classifies Belarus as a consolidated autocratic regime in its "Nations in Transit 2012" report. Another seven European countries join the EU sanctions.
Mark Chagall exhibition in Minsk. On June 7, an open-air exhibition of reproductions of the works of Belarus-born Mark Chagall was opened in the Yakub Kolas Square in Minsk commemorating the artist’s 125th anniversary. The exhibit, which will be open until mid-September, is a result of over 12 months of planning and negotiations between civil society, government and business. The idea of the project, which received wide coverage in independent and state media, is to educate and unite the deeply divided nation about Belarus-rooted personalities and was developed by the Idea Foundation (Fond of Idea).
Initially, the Minsk city authorities were asked to allow the placement of large reproductions on building walls along the main avenues of the city. The request was denied. Through negotiations, the Foundation, which partnered with the French Embassy and the Museum of Contemporary Art, was able to convince Minsk City Executive Committee to allow the exhibition to take place in the Yakub Kolas Square. BelVEB Bank provided full funding for the exhibition. Minister of Culture Latushka opened the event which by some online commentators who stated they “can’t believe this is happening in Minsk”.
The disputed Above the Sky goes online. Director of the first Belarusian youth movie "Above the Sky", commissioned by UNDP Office in Belarus as a youth series, and was then much disputed, uploaded the film on youtube.com . As previously informed, in late April, the film crew distributed a video appeal asking UNDP Office to allow a full-length version to screening, suggesting the film may have been subjected to censorship.
Committee on commemoration of Vitaly Silitski. A Committee on the commemoration of the first BISS director Vitaly Silitski has been established. The committee consists of about thirty well-known Belarusian and foreign public and academic figures. Among the Committee's activities there is a Scholarship and anAward named after Silitski, as well as publishing of a number of his books.
"Life without Barriers". Gomel NGO "Disabled-spinalniki" implements the project "Life without Barriers" with the support of the International Children's Fund. The aim of the project is to assist people with disabilities living in the Gomel region with employment. For this purpose, the organizers conduct trainings and published brochures.
Documentary “Together”. The Office for the Rights of People with Disabilities initiated the producing of the documentary "Together" about inclusive education of children with and without disabilities. The film aims to form positive relationship models regarding people with disabilities. A presentation of the documentary "Together" was held on June 6 in Minsk.
Summer Camp for Human Rights. In order to promote civic education on human rights and legal protection of the public interest, the Legal Transformation Centre (Belarus), International Forum Burg Liebenzell (Germany), Flying University (Belarus) and others announce a call for applications for VII Summer Camp for Human Rights. The Camp will be held from July 24 to August 3, 2012 in Bad Liebenzell. The participation fee is 80 euros.
Meeting "New Media – New Rules." On June 10, cultural portal КУ holds a unique meeting "New Media – New Rules", where representatives of the most famous online resources – Lookatme, Livejournal, and Onliner – will share their expertise in the field of online media, and their views on the prospect of development of Belarusian online media and the blogosphere. The meeting will be held at the hotel "Crown Plaza", Minsk.
Interaction between state and civil society
BISS condemns jail sentence imposed on political analyst Pikulik. On June 5, the Board of the Belarusian Institute of Strategic Studies (BISS) issued a statement to condemn the jail term imposed on the institute’s academic director, Alyaksey Pikulik, on June 1. In the statement, the BISS Board accused the authorities of waging an intimidation campaign against Pikulik and urged all independent political experts to “continue their activities, carry on with unbiased surveys of Belarus and remain committed to maintaining high professional standards despite intimidation.”
“Granite” administration ignores independent trade union. The administration of the Mikashevichy enterprise “Granite” refused to provide office room for the independent trade union, though its members addressed a member of the lower chamber of the Parliament Larysa Vershalovich with a request for assistance in solving this issue.
Ronald Pofalla about Belarus. In case of an un-free election, the Belarusian opposition has no chance of winning. This opinion was expressed by the head office of the Federal Chancellor of Germany Ronald Pofalla at a press conference in Vilnius on June 8. He also noted that in the future, with the normalization of relations with the EU, Belarus "could perform a very important function – to be a bridge and to link Europe and eastern countries of the continent".
Sannikau’s lawyer banned from leaving Belarus. Maryna Kavaleuskaya, a lawyer of a former political prisoner Andrei Sannikau, was banned from leaving Belarus. She could not get to Vilnius on June 7.
Residents of the micro-district "Kolodishchi-2" initiate a public expertise. Residents of the micro-district "Kolodishchi-2" near Minsk initiate a public environmental assessment of the project of the residential area "Green Forest". They appealed to the Minsk City Executive Committee and expressed their concern about the planned construction a power plant, a vehicle fleet, and a rail and road junction. This will entail the demolition of about 800 garages and cutting green area.
Other notable news
Statute returned to Belarus. The Statute of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania of 1588 was delivered to Minsk. The Statute was sold by a Moscow antiques auction for $45,000. The Mahiliou Historical Museum started a sound fundraising campaign which caused much buzz and managed to help to rapidly collect the necessary sum, involving Belarusian citizens, businesses and even the National Bank of the Republic of Belarus.
Nations in Transit 2012. On June 6, the Washington-based Freedom House released its comprehensive, comparative study of democratic development in 29 countries from Central Europe to Eurasia. The report classifies Belarus as a consolidated autocratic regime, in which the economy is controlled by the state with the exception of some limited activity in the private sector. The dimensions "Judicial Framework and Independence" and "Electoral Process" got the lowest scores.
UN should address «urgent human rights issues» in Belarus, says high commissioner. The UN high commissioner for human rights will recommend the UN to address “urgent human rights issues” in Belarus. In her report that will be discussed at the UN Human Rights Council’s 20th session to open on June 18, the commissioner says that the rights situation in the country has deteriorated after the December 2010 presidential election.
Another seven European countries – Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Iceland, Serbia, Albania and Liechtenstein – have joined the economic and visa sanctions of the EU against Belarus. This statement was made on June 8, byEU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton.
Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials provided by Pact. This digest attempts to give a richer picture of the recent political and civil society events in Belarus. It often goes beyond the hot stories already available in English-language media.