Visa-free travel and registration in Belarus: not so simple

Starting 12 February, citizens of 80 states, including 39 European countries, will be able to enter Belarus visa-free through the Minsk National Airport. But unlike Kazakhstan, which allows foreigners to stay in the country for up to 30 days, Belarus introduced a much more tricky visa-free regime.

Foreign travellers should be prepared for strict penalties should they fail to understand or abide by the rules. The current practise of registering people with Belarusian visas staying for longer than five days sometimes creates an impression that Belarusian migration authorities view tourists as cash cows.

Visa-free entry

Since 2016, the Belarusian authorities have been gradually opening up the country to foreigners. On 26 October, Belarus allowed visa-free entry for up to five days (UPD: from July 2018 the tem is extended to 30 days) for tourists from most Western countries coming to Hrodna Region by bus or car. This has already brought thousands of tourists to the region.

The visa-free regime through the Minsk National Airport introduced in January has more far-reaching implications. Belarus opened to ‘favourable countries in terms of migration’ and ‘strategic partners’, including the European Union countries, United States, Canada and Japan (see the full list here).

Tourists should have a valid passport or other document permitting foreign travel, a small amount of money (minimum €25 per day), and medical insurance. For some poorer countries, visa-free entry is allowed only on the condition that they also possess an EU visa.

Unlike Kazakhstan, which expanded the list of countries allowed to travel visa-free for up to 30 days in January 2017 and whose policy is fairly straightforward, the Belarusian visa regime is more complicated in practice than at the first sight.

Visa-free tourists must both arrive and leave only through the Minsk National Airport. This is the only international airport in a country of 9.5m people. The airport is far from Minsk (40 km) and is poorly served by public transport.

Due to the scarcity of flights connecting Minsk with the rest of the world, having even a full three-day slot in Belarus could be problematic. For example, there are only three direct flights per week to London.

This short time period effectively makes travelling to other parts of Belarus, such as Hrodna or Brest, very difficult because this requires at least half a day’s travel from Minsk.

Kafkaesque migration regulations and procedures

Although the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is trying to create a positive image of the country to promote the visa-free regime, the Ministry of Internal Affairs seems to have a different goal.

On 10 January 2016 the Head of the Department of Citizenship and Migration of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Aliaksei Biahun, explained that those who overstay their five-day visa will face a warning or a fine of up to €550 with or without deportation. We will not know until February how the new visa-free regime will work in practice, but the current procedure for registering foreigners with Belarusian visas who want to spend more than five days in Belarus is perhaps a hint.

If you are a foreigner with a Belarusian visa and want to stay for more than five days not in an officially registered hotel you need to register with the police. The point of this procedure is to ensure the authorities know where you are staying. Ironically, by this time you will have given the authorities this address twice: when applying for the visa and completing a migration card when crossing the boder.

Belarus probably has the strictest system of registration of foreigners in Europe. For example, the United Kingdom only requires police registration if you stay longer than six months. Russia permits visits without registration of seven working days, which can mean eleven if you include weekends. Belarus only allows five days, which following a strange logic includes Saturdays but not Sundays (this tiny detail is often omitted and can lead to serious problems and fines).

To make things even more complicated, on Saturdays the police registration offices are usually open for only a few hours, but the banks where you need to go to pay fees are closed. On Mondays, police departments are usually closed for registration procedures but this day still counts towards the five-day limit.

Under normal Belarusian law, counting the days starts on the day following the event (i.e. crossing the border). However, migration officials also count the day of arrival, even if you arrive at 23:59. This makes it even more difficult to figure out when exactly you need to register.

Although Belarus bills itself as a new Silicon Valley, home to successful startups such as Viber and World of Tanks, registration for foreigners cannot be done online; foreigners need to register in person in a remote office.

The registration fee is very small (around $10), but you are likely to spend at least half a day registering yourself. You will need to figure out the procedure (which is not explained when you cross the border), find and reach the registration office in a remote location and queue to get an application form. You cannot go there alone even if you speak the language, because the application form has to be signed both by you and your Belarusian host.

It is not possible to pay on the spot, so you also have to find a local bank and queue there to make the registration payment. With the confirmation of payment and a number of other documents, you will then need to return to the registration office to join yet another queue to submit it to a migration official.

The wrath of Belarusian law and the hungry Belarusian budget

If you think that failure to pay a small $10 registration fee on time is not a big deal, you don’t understand the logic of the system. The main purpose of the fine is not to compensate the damage caused by failure to submit your address for the third time. The logic is to bring in money for the budget. As Belarus is experiencing a deep recession caused by falling oil prices and lack of reform, the government has to be creative.

So, if you miss the registration even by one day, you will face a fine equivalent to hundreds of US dollars. Although the law also provides the possibility of a warning, in practice this will be of little help, even if you have a very good reason for missing the deadline.

What’s more, your Belarusian host will also have to pay a fine of a similar amount for failing to ensure that their guest is registered. According to this logic, a driver should pay a fine for violating a traffic rule as well as a passenger for failing to prevent it. This absurdness, however, helps raise money for the budget.

Is it worth all the hassle?

Belarus is an interesting country for tourists, not only because of the remnants of the Soviet past such as monuments to Lenin, but because of its rich history.

It has four UNESCO World Heritage sites and beautiful nature with plenty of forests and lakes. The prices (particularly for alcohol) are generally very low, the country is very safe and easy to reach.

The best advice for tourists would be to check and double-check all regulations and procedures in advance in order to avoid fines.

The new visa-free regime is certainly an important step which makes political and economic sense. One would hope that the Belarusian government would think more of the bigger picture and the country’s reputation. Belarus should welcome tourists so they can stay in the country longer and spend more on pleasurable activities than fines.




Belarus prepares to expand its visa-free zone

In October-December 2016, almost 2,000 tourists took advantage of new visa-free regulations to visit Hrodna Region. In response to the increasing amount of foreign tourists, Hrodna Region has started working on two important initiatives: visa-free railway voyages and launching low-cost flights to Hrodna airport.

However, making railway services and the Hrodna airport accessible visa-free will not attract many more tourists if more tourist services are not first developed. Extension of the visa-free territory to the whole of Belarus and investment in the development of services would significantly improve the popularity of Belarus for tourists.

Two months visa-free

On 26 October, Belarus announced visa-free entry for tourists. According to presidential decree 318: ‘Concerning the introduction of visa-free entry and departure for foreigners’, tourists can stay up to 5 days on the territory of Hrodna Region

From 26 October to 26 December, almost 2,000 foreign nationals visited the visa-free territory. The majority of tourists (1,358 people) were Lithuanians, followed by Poles (795). Belarus has also attracted tourists from Germany, Spain, Italy, and Portugal, as well the USA and even Africa.

Aleh Andreychyk, Head of the regional Sport and Tourism Management committee, told Belta that the Old Town, zoo, farmsteads, and night clubs proved the most popular destinations for tourists. Although many tourists highlighted the cheap prices, the insufficient amount of English spoken in services became an important issue.

Opinions on visa-free regulation

In December, Hrodna.life conducted series of interviews with tourists who had came to Belarus according to the visa-free regime. A Spanish family which had recently visited Hrodna noted that Belarus should work more on its image and marketing with the help of experts like those you can find at Indexsy, if it wants to attract more tourists to the country, which remains unknown and under-discovered for many foreigners.

Another traveller from Brazil noted that Belarus is far from the typical Soviet country due to its architecture and developed technologies. Michal Sikorski, a Polish blogger, visited Hrodna and posted a video report. Michal called upon Belarusians to preserve their uniqueness and highlighted the architecture of Hrodna, as well as its night clubs.

Local activists from Hrodna have also noted the significant increase in tourists over the last two months. Yauhen Skarabutan told Radyjo Racyja that these are only the first steps on the way to a visa-free regime between Belarus and the EU.

The next step for visa-free regulation

The Head of Hrodna Region executive committee, Uladzimir Kraucou, reported that due to the increasing amount of tourists, the visa-free zone needs to be extended. Although this might sound as if the authorities are suggesting enlarging the visa-free zone, amendments to the law really only entail expanding visa-free access to railway and flights.

For now, it is only possible to enter Belarus visa-free by car or bus. Visa-free trains from Poland to Belarus would attract more tourists. When travelling by car, visitors have to purchase insurance and spend an unpredictable amount of time on the border. Train travel would remove these arguments.

Authorities in Hrodna Region suggest making the recently launched train route Hrodna – Białystok – Warszawa – Kraków visa-free.

Moreover, Hrodna Region is proposing to launch low-cost routes to Hrodna airport and include the airport in its visa-free zone. Today, the airport is very small and underdeveloped, with only several routes. Low-cost flights from the EU would require investment in airport equipment and better transportation with easy access to town.

The last proposal is still being discussed. Authorities suggest creating a new border checkpoint at ‘Safieva – Lipchany’. Hrodna Region authorities note that they are working actively on extending visa-free regulation. Nevertheless, these proposals, even if quickly implemented, are insufficient for making tourism to Belarus truly popular.

Small steps, small achievements

So far, Belarus has taken small steps to liberalise its visa regime. The number of tourists to Belarus has significantly decreased since 2010. Introducing visa-free entrance to one of the Belarusian regions two months ago was the first attempt to open up the country. However, learning from the experience of neighbouring countries could help improve the model for developing local tourism.

For instance, Podlaskie region has created a centre for promotion of the region. The centre actively participates in campaigns aimed at attracting tourists to the region, primarily from Belarus. Recently, at the centre’s initiative, the Bialystok Opera sold tickets to Belarusians in exchange for free visas. Creating such a centre in Hrodna could develop new methods of attracting tourists to the region.

The minor extensions suggested by Hrodna authorities have so far been ineffective in changing Belarus’s image and popularity among foreign tourists. Introducing low-cost flights to Hrodna will be unlikely to encourage many more tourists to visit Belarus until the airport is better-equipped and connected to the town. The low level of English knowledge, reflected in the lack of English or Latin writing in public spaces will create an additional obstacle for tourists.

Bialystok, the closest Polish town across the border with similar population, has 18 hotels on Booking.com. Hrodna only has five

Extending the visa-free territory to the whole of Belarus would be much more effective. A recent example of successful visa liberalisation is Kazakhstan, where visas are no loner required for citizens of 37 developed countries for up to 30 days. The country aims to create a large international financial centre and receive direct investments from states such as Austria, Canada, and Sweden. Such a measure in Belarus would make the country more popular in the West. The increased degree of openness brought about by a visa-free regime could only be beneficial economically, socially, and culturally.

However, amending visa regulations will not attract a large amount of tourists unless services are developed first. At the moment, it would be savvy for Belarus to invest in the tourism sphere, at least in Hrodna Region. For comparison, Bialystok, the closest Polish town across the border with more or less the same population, has 18 hotels. Meanwhile, according to Booking.com Hrodna only has five. More hotels and hostels, along with better food and entertainment services, would encourage foreigners to visit Belarus more than once.

All that said, the successful introduction of the visa-free zone in Hrodna Region and the possible extensions to regulations still point to the intention of the country to open up and improve relations with the EU. The next logical step for Belarus could be the ratification of the cross-border movement agreement, which Poland and Lithuania have already approved, and cancellation of visas for developed countries, as in Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine.




Belarus opens up? The government announces visa-free entrance

On 26 October 2016 a new visa-free area along the Augustow Canal, a conservation protection zone in the Hrodna region on the border with Poland and Lithuania became effective.

Tourists will also be able to visit adjacent districts of Hrodna region as well as the city of Hrodna (population 300,000) visa-free, an unprecedented measure in the history of sovereign Belarus.

The visa-free regime will last until 31 December 2017. This will make it the second visa-free zone in Belarus after the national park Bielaviežskaja Pušča opened up in 2015; foreign citizens can stay in the forest for up to three days.

These initiatives appear to be an experiment before Belarusian authorities implement a more comprehensive simplification of the visa regime: future plans also include the long awaited authorisation of local border traffic. Belarusian authorities have long overlooked tourism as a source of profit, but the crisis in traditional industries has forced them to consider this option.

Is Belarus finally opening up to the world?

On 23 August Aliksandr Lukashenka signed decree No. 318: "Concerning the introduction of visa-free entry and departure for foreigners” which came into effect on 26 October 2016. The document allows visa-free stay in the Augustow Canal nature park and adjacent territories for a period of up to five days. The authorities launched a special web site explaining the visa-free entry procedure.

Foreigners will be required to obtain permission to stay on the territory of the Augustow Canal park. Permission can be requested from Belarusian tour operators and travel agencies.

Tourists will need to submit a form to border authorities via e-mail or post at least 24 hours before their arrival. Visitors to the park will be able to enter Belarus via four border checkpoints – two on the border with Poland and two with Lithuania.Visa-free stay can last up to 5 days, after which foreigners must leave the territory of Belarus.

Importantly, tourists will also be able to stay in adjacent districts of the Hrodna region and the city of Hrodna (population 300,000) visa-free, an unprecedented measure in the history of sovereign Belarus. Minsk and other major cities are outside the visa-free zone, so a trip there would be considered a violation of visa-free entry rules.

According to Deputy Minister of Sports and Tourism Michail Partnoj, this is a preliminary measure before Belarus opens up to the world even more. The first such initiative appeared during the 2014 World Hockey Championship which took place in Minsk. Authorities announced that foreigners with a ticket for the championship could enter Belarus without a visa.

In summer 2015 the government introduced a visa-free regime for tourists entering the national reserve Bielavieža forest on the border with Poland. Visitors need only posses a valid ID and a ticket for the national reserve.

The fact that Poles and Lithuanians will have easier access to Hrodna may indicate that Minsk wants to test the impact of local border traffic. Its authorisation was long delayed because of Poland and Lithuania’s critical position towards the political regime in Belarus.

Furthermore, the government fears that Belarusians will drain foreign currency reserves while shopping in borderland areas of the EU. However, as relations with the EU improve, Minsk may reconsider the local border traffic issue.

A major obstacle to tourism development

Despite being an immediate EU neighbour, Belarus remains the most closed country in Europe when it comes to visas. Except for former Soviet republics with mutual free travel policies, the citizens of only a dozen countries in Latin America and Asia can enter Belarus visa-free, and even then only for 30 or 90 days per year. Russia has a very similar visa regime, but it offers visa-free entrance to a slightly higher number of countries.

In March 2016 Deputy Minister of Sport and Tourism Michail Partnoj, speaking at a seminar on inbound tourism, made a resolute statement: “We need to open up Belarus… We will break down bureaucratic obstacles by the law and authority endowed upon us. Tourism will develop in Belarus.”

The Ministry of Sports and Tourism remains the main advocate of simplification of entrance to Belarus. This is no wonder, since the success of the tourist industry directly depends on the number of tourists entering the country, and visa barriers remain a major obstacle to visiting Belarus.

To give an example, official statistics report that in 2015 Belarus hosted 300,000 organised tourists (the actual figures seem to be smaller), while Lithuania's capital Vilnius, not the most popular destination in Europe by any stretch of the imagination, hosted around one million visitors. What's more, out of these 300,000 tourists the majority came from Russia, which has an open border with Belarus.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has long been reluctant to advocate visa-free travel, as consular fees bring a good deal of income to the ministry. Currently, a person who wants to obtain a Belarusian visa has to pay €60-150 depending on the type of visa. In recent years, however, the ministry has changed its position and supports easing the visa regime.

Belarus security agencies remain the main opponents of a mass inflow of tourists, as they would need to considerably change the way they work. The Border Committee claims the border infrastructure is not capable of handling a larger numbers of visitors, while police will have to cope with much more work registering foreigners and maintaining order in the streets and on roads.

What comes next?

People both inside and outside Belarus have criticised the government for dragging its feet about the visa issue. Many contrast Belarus with Ukraine, which made entrance for all Schengen zone citizens visa-free some 10 years ago.

However, Belarusian authorities are notorious for extreme caution and incrementalism – they never make radical moves when it comes to politically sensitive issues. Therefore, the country opening up all at once seems like a highly unlikely scenario. Moreover, Belarusian authorities are also known for reversing policies if the political environment changes, which happened with local border traffic in 2010.

Nevertheless, these new initiatives indicate an understanding within the government that tourism can become a profit-making industry in times of crisis when traditional industries such as machine building are experiencing stagnation.

Easing the visa-regime will benefit tourism-related businesses, improve Belarus' image in the world, facilitate person-to-person contacts and encourage the integration of Belarus into the European context.

Potential travellers and business owners can only hope that the new visa experiments will lead to a comprehensive simplification of the visa regime shortly after.




Unusual Aspects of Travelling to Belarus – a Westerner’s Perspective

In geographical terms, Belarus lies at the heart of Europe. It borders the European Union. Its capital Minsk can be reached from London by plane in less than three hours. Even so, the first time visitor may encounter a number of features of life here that will surprise.

An apparent obsession with Red Tape and Bureaucracy, particularly within Officialdom, can both amuse and infuriate. Certain aspects of promenading the streets may catch the eye. A visit to the museum offers a fuller experience than might be expected. And symbols of the country’s turbulent twentieth century history offer a hint as to the national psyche.

Red Tape and Bureaucracy

Belarus is not the only country in the world that requires visitors from abroad to obtain visas as a condition of entry. Stretching from the United States in the West all the way to Australia in the Southern Hemisphere, via Kenya and Vietnam in between (all likely destinations for the tourist), an array of visa rules await.

Earlier this year, the Belarusian government was pleased to announce a relaxation in visa requirements under certain controlled conditions for visitors crossing the border from Poland into Byelovyezhskaya Puscha National Park. Unfortunately, completing the application for exemption matched the application for a visa itself in complexity!

The secondary obligation to present a migration card for stamping on arrival to report details of a traveller’s temporary address and duration of stay can sometimes prove to be difficult, but is not entirely unique either.

If travelling on a trip organised by a travel agency, the procedures required by the regulations will be taken care of. The agency will offer visa application support in advance, and then after arrival, registration of the visit in the form of a stamp on the obligatory migration card will be taken care of by the host hotel.

However, those who choose to travel independently will encounter more of a challenge. The visa application is not particularly difficult and seeks no more information than is required to enter the United States for example, but the subsequent process of registering at the local Citizenship and Migration Office can call for endurance, patience and a calm head.

Registration must be completed within five working days of entering the country. It pays to make this task a priority and if a Russian speaker is available to go with you, preferably someone local, then the path will be less tortuous.

In the final analysis, obtaining a stamp on the obligatory migration form sets a non-negotiable task. Do not overlook it.

Promenading the Streets

Stepping into the road to cross lines of cars in London and other major Western cities can be a stressful business for pedestrian and motorist alike, with jaywalkers and cyclists crossing every point of your peripheral vision.

Not in Minsk. For starters, do not expect to see anyone riding a bicycle. And even with little or no traffic in sight, whether on a side street or an eight-lane boulevard, pedestrians will always wait for the clock on the stand of traffic lights to tick down to green. The rules are universally observed, which means you never step off the pavement until the green light invites you to.

Do not play fast and loose with this. If you do, a militiaman will appear from nowhere to ‘have a word’. Belarus still boasts a police presence per capita amongst the highest in the world. Contrast this, however, with the statistic that London’s faceless officials peer through more CCTV cameras than can be found in Minsk.

A Visit to the Museum

At times, museums in the West present significant overcrowding, such that a long wait just for entry can be expected, followed by difficulty in getting close to exhibits for a good look. At best, self-led tours with only an audio guide and headphones for company make the visit an isolating one.

A trip to the museum in Belarus offers considerably more, but do be sure you have allotted several hours for the experience. Particularly in the provinces, you may find very few fellow browsers. If you go at the right time, a personal guided tour of the exhibits by a local expert, perhaps even the curator, will be offered.

Your guide will want to show you all there is to see and will have a huge amount of detail to share. This presents a fine opportunity to receive a wealth of information on a one-to-one basis that will help you to understand the country and its people, though it does not lend itself to speed. Do be sure to allocate enough time.

Minsk is beginning to present a more welcoming face to visitors from the West in the form of readily available information in English. One good example can be experienced at the excellent Belarusian State Museum of the Great Patriotic War, relocated in 2014 to Pobedy Park. The exhibits feature informative English display boards that paint a vivid picture of all that transpired here in the brutal days of the 1940s.

Other Minsk museums of more specialist interest present a greater challenge for non-speakers of Russian or Belarusian, but with notice in advance it may be possible to arrange an English-speaking guide. Alternatively the travel agency in charge of organising your trip will be able to provide someone, though at a cost.

One example of niche interest is to be found at the Azgur Memorial Museum, dedicated to the life and work of renowned Belarusian sculptor Zair Azgur. The exhibits here are simply magnificent.

Twentieth Century History

To this day the gaze of the old Bolshevik Lenin, leader of the 1917 Revolution, continues to anticipate a brighter future as he stands guard on a plinth of granite (or at least, concrete) in every Belarusian city, town and village.

Equally ubiquitous, reminders of the suffering at the hands of the Nazis endured during the Great Patriotic War are to be found never far away. Whether doleful memorials to the lost, or glorious celebrations of heroism, citizens and visitors alike are exhorted never to forget the sacrifices made by their forbears.

This small sample by no means encompasses all that a first-time visitor may find different about Belarus; after all, travel offers an entirely personal experience and each visitor will have different impressions. Yet all are likely to conclude that a visit to this fascinating country holds much of unique interest in this corner of Europe.

Nigel Roberts

Nigel is a freelance travel writer specialising in Belarus and is based in the UK




Tourism in Belarus: Things to Do

More than 70 thousand tourists are heading to Belarus ahead of the 2014 IIHF World Ice Hockey Championship. Many plan to take advantage of the temporary visa-free regime this May. 

Though numerous wars and rebellions have resulted in the destruction of many architectural landmarks, Belarus has plenty of tourist attractions undiscovered by mainstream tourists from the West.

Belarus Digest prepared an interesting list of places that you need to see in order to say that you truly experienced Belarus. One can reach these places by bus or car from Minsk – distances from Minsk appear in brackets. 

Most Popular Destinations

Once in Belarus take the opportunity to visit Mir and Niasvizh. Both are included in the UNESCO World Heritage list and probably have the best tourist facilities in the country. You will find it easier to find detailed information in English and plenty of souvenirs there.

Mir (100 km) is a small town with cafes and an old Catholic church adjacent to the famous castle complex built by the Duke Yuri Ilyinich in the 16th century. Its architecture represents a harmonious mixture of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque styles that embodies the volatile history of the region, one located at the crossroads of different cultures. If you have ever wanted to spend a night in a castle, you can take advantage of their on-site accommodations.

NiasvizhA system of underground tunnels supposedly connects Mir with the beautiful Niasvizh castle located just 60 km from Mir. The legend goes that the noble Radziwill family hid their treasures in these tunnels.

This prosperous family played a major role in the history of Niasvizh and the politics of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania which kept its state archives in the castle. Many prominent Radziwills are buried in the family vault located in the 16th-century Corpus Christi Church just opposite the castle complex’s main entrance. This unique domed basilica with a Baroque facade was the first of its kind in the world and the first Baroque building in Eastern Europe.

Tourist Sites near Minsk

Those who prefer to stay closer to Minsk may find it interesting to visit some small cities and museums in its neighbourhood.

One of them is Zaslauye (24 km) that can easily be reached by the same modern city trains that operate between the Minsk-Arena and the Chyzhouka-Arena. According to the Chronicles, Vladimir the Great from Kyiv founded the town for his wife Ragneda and their son Izyaslau in 985 AD.

Though the current state of Zaslauye does not fully represent its rich history, it is nevertheless a worthwhile tourist attraction. Beautiful landscapes surround the 16th-century Saviour Transfiguration Church which was formerly Calvinist. It reflects the protestant segment of a multi-religious Belarusian society.

Those interested in the history of WWII may also be willing to visit the Stalin line (30 km). Though many dispute its historical value and original location, the memorial is nevertheless interesting for its large collection of Soviet military equipment (tanks, artillery, etc), which visitors can explore.

Two other landmarks are the ethnological museums in Strochycy (5 km) and Dudutki (50 km). They both offer an introduction to the old life of rural Belarus, but they each have a different focus.

Strochycy exhibits the folk architecture of 6 distinctive Belarusian ethnographical regions over a large area. A visitor can see authentic houses and windmills that museum organisers have brought together into one location outdoors from different parts of the country.

In contrast, Dudutki prioritises an exhibition of rural cuisine, traditional crafts and culture. One can taste homemade butter, bread, cheese and even samogon – a traditional variety of alcohol which is usually made illegally in villages and towns throughout Belarus.

Cultural Landmarks for More Adventurous

Some farther Belarusian landmarks require having a car or taking a regional train to visit them which can be a challenge in a country where it is hard to find good English speakers outside Minsk. However, such a trip would allow to see the cultural heritage of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania – a medieval Belarusian-Lithuanian state.

Hrodna (290 km) is a good place to start. The city experienced a significant expansion in terms of its size and role during the times of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Every third general Sejm of the Commonwealth (parliament convention) took place in the city, so it held the unofficial status of a third capital after Warsaw and Vilnius. Hrodna currently has the most preserved historical centre among all Belarusian cities with landmarks of different architectural epochs.

HrodnaThese include the magnificent Baroque St. Francis Xavier Cathedral and the 12th-century Kalozha church which is the only monument of Black Ruthenian architecture that has survived.

The Old Castle near Kalozha, which was one of the main residencies of Lithuanian and Polish rulers such as Vitaut the Great and Casimir IV Jagiellon, is also found here. A 300-year-old arch bridge connects it with the New Castle. The building hosted the last Sejm of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth before Russia and Prussia partitioned the country in 1793. 

Synkovichi and Muravanka (250 km from Minsk) represent an original variety of Orthodox fortified churches located in the same region. The adjacent Brest region contains several prominent palace ruins currently under reconstruction.

The Sapieha noble family chose the Ruzhany Palace (230 km from Minsk) as their main seat. At one time it kept the arsenal and state treasury of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

Ruzhany Palace

The neo-Gothic Kosava castle (220 km) overlooks Merechevschina – birthplace of the American, Polish and Belarusian hero Tadeusz Kościuszko. He enjoyed a close friendship with Thomas Jefferson and advanced the ideals of freedom and human rights in the American Revolutionary War. 

 

Ecotourism and WWII Memorials

Belarus officially aims to develop ecotourism and has many precious natural assets, such as an extensive system of lakes in the north-west of the country that includes Narach and Braslav lakes.

If you have plenty of time, a trip to another UNESCO World Heritage site, the Belavezhskaya Pushcha (360 km) might be worth a visit. Shared by Belarus and Poland, this national park is home to a rare species of European bison and 450-year-old oaks. In addition, it contains the hunting estate Viskuli where Belarusian, Ukrainian and Russian leaders signed Belavezha accords that declared the Soviet Union effectively dissolved in 1991.

Just outside the Belavezhskaya Pushcha is ​the well-preserved Tower of Kamyanyets erected in the 13th century which attracts many tourists and offers beautiful views from the top. 

Brest FortressYou can continue your trip through this region by visiting the famous Brest Fortress located not far from the Pushcha where Soviet soldiers fought against the Nazi invasion for more than a month in 1941.

Not many people are aware of its presence, but there is also an interesting archaeological museum just near the fortress where one can see the excavations of the 11-13th-century historic town of Bierascie.

Every fourth Belarusian died during the course of WWII and the country suffered immense damage as a result, so many WWII monuments can be found throughout Belarus. One of the most important sites to see, and definitely worth a visit, is the Khatyn memorial, a site that commemorates the tragedy of an entire village burned alive with all of its citizens. 

Tourism for Many Persuasions

Belarus is yet to be discovered by tourists from Europe and North America. Once you reached Minsk, do not limit yourself only to ice hockey arenas and Minsk's museums, restaurants and night clubs.  Belarus is a very safe country to travel. 

Friendliness of people and very low prices will compensate possible problems with communicating in English outside Minsk and at times rudimentary customer service at tourist destinations. Being the only foreigner around will make it an interesting experience. 

You can enrich your experience, engage Belarusian life and develop a more profound understanding of the national culture if you go to smaller places and visit the country's historical landmarks. 

They demonstrate how different Belarus was before the Soviet period and how today the country balances its Soviet heritage and deep European roots. 

George Plaschinsky

George is a graduate of the London School of Economics where he studied under the OESS scholarship financed by the European Commission.




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. 

The Unique

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 Bernotas

Monika was a Fulbright scholar teaching in Belarus in 2012-2013.