For years, the name “Belarus” has not been on every tourist’s lips. Despite its pristine nature, rich Soviet legacy, developing agritourism and general safety for travelers, the country didn’t receive the attention it’s worth of. But things are going to change: the Republic of Belarus has opened its borders and is now visa-free for tourist from a number of states (including the UK), who travel by plane.
On February, 9 during a meeting in London AITO welcomed another associated member – the Republican union of tourism industry (RUTI), an organization that consolidates tour operators, DMCs, hotels and tourist attractions from Belarus.
On March 13-17, a return visit was made. Representatives of tour operators and AITO officials came to the Belarusian capitol Minsk for a FAM trip. Both visits were facilitated by the Embassy of Belarus to the UK, the Embassy of the UK to Belarus and the National tourist board of Belarus. During the tour, the participants stayed in Minsk. The capitol of Belarus is located in the central part of the country; it’s the largest city in Belarus with a population of 2 million. Due to proximity to the country’s major airport and developed infrastructure, Minsk often will be the first place to visit and a key point in any travel to Belarus.
The impression is very vivid. The hotels are decent, and they have a potential to attract tourists from the UK. “Victoria” deserves a specific mention: including SPA services in the accommodation coat is a big plus. On the whole, the country’s great advantage is presence of international hotel brands on its market. However, in comparison with British hotels, there’s still a room for improvement. Our company is planning to sell tours that combine visiting Belarus and Russia. I hope the destination will satisfy our clients’ expectations. – Ekaterina Mikulskaia, BSI Global Group sales representative in the UK said.
However, the city is notable not only for its practical transport system and comfortable hotels, but for its well-preserved Soviet and Post-Soviet architecture. Processes of decommunization barely touched Minsk’s appearance, so it combines the allure of the last half of the XXth century with a modern approach towards city planning.
“I feel that Soviet heritage is a big part of Belarusian history. And I think that is something that people, if they are coming to Belarus, will be interested in. It’s a destination people don’t really know about, but they all know that Belarus was once a part of the Soviet Union. Of course, there is the Old Town in Minsk, but what Minsk should be sold for is its XXth century architecture: the Gates of Minsk, the House of fashion, the Mound of Glory. Even the National library, although a modern structure, still has that bombastic feel people would think about when they recall the Soviet architecture. It’s something very unique, we don’t have anything like that in London. My personal highlight is the House of fashion: it’s something completely different. And the fact that there is KFC underneath something that is so Soviet adds to the interest with a kind of irony.” – Simon Clifford, product manager of Cox & Kings.
Minsk has a lot to offer in the evening, from nightclubs and bar street to visiting theatres, opera and ballet. One shall not only visit the National Opera and Ballet Theatre, but also take a tour of its backstage and discover the rich history and traditions of Belarusian ballet school.
Lisa Jayne Spratling of KE Adventure Product Team:
“It was quite a surprise, because normally the end of FAM trips does not involve such a big highlight like going to a theatre. It was great to be a part of nightlife in Minsk on a Saturday night, when people go to opera and theatre. For me, going inside of such a beautiful theatre was one of the highlights of the trip, something very special. If someone is coming there for cultural experience or on city breaks, that would be interesting for them.”
Due to Minsk’s geographical location, many Belarusian landmarks are within travelers’ reach. Castles of Mir and Niasviž are a fine example. They are the UNESCO World Heritage sites and one of the most iconic Belarusian attractions. Both Mir and Niasviž used to be residencies of the Radziwill magnate family and are related to the country’s Medieval and Modern period history, when Belarus used to be a part of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Russian Empire.
“The castles of Mir and Niasviž are impressive. It is very interesting how the local guide referred back to British history, how some of the monarchs and the ruling class were actually spread around Europe. I like the suggestion of doing one castle and staying overnight; I could imagine staying in the rooms of Mir castle. It’s quite a unique experience, that’s what to put on Instagram or Facebook and say: “Look where I’ve slept tonight”. However, if you only have 3 or 4 days in Belarus, I would suggest visiting only one of the castles. There’s so much to see and to do, so I don’t think the focus for Europeans would be castles. That being said, I’ve seen dozens and dozens of castles and Mir and Niasviž would rank up with Neuschwanstein and some of big memorable castles just because they’ve been so lavishly renovated.” – Eoin-Pol Denton, Tucan Travel Head of Operations.
One of the hallmarks of Belarus is industrial tourism: it is possible to visit a number of manufacturing enterprises during a travel. That tour featured BelAZ, a haul truck manufacturer situated in Žodzina. The plant produces one of the largest trucks in the world and welcomes tourists at its workshops and on the premises.
Stephen Hyde, Managing Director of Distinctive World Travel:
“I’m not certain whether it would appeal to everybody. I think males would be more interested in it than ladies, although I may be speaking a bit generalistic. I personally found it fascinating, because it’s difficult to go to such a factory in the United Kingdom. In the UK we have lots of car producers, but you can’t really go to the shop floor to see what they do. I was lucky enough to be one of the two people who went up into the truck, which was an experience I haven’t forget for a while: there were lots of fun. I think, all of us here from the AITO group, are more interested in a slightly more unusual and diverse of tourist attractions, and that was one of that kind. It was very nice to meet all that people, everyone there was very friendly and helpful.”
Another world famous feature of Belarus is agritourism. With government support, a wide range of farmsteads started to offer their services to travelers, and today one can find such a place in every corner of the country. The experience of visiting is unique for every farmstead, but most of them focuses on displaying countryside lifestyle and introducing the local cuisine. The participants of the tour visited Ganka farmstead near Minsk, where they took part in some activities.
Hannah Claire Methven, Worldwide Programme Manager of Explore:
“I guess, for me it was a highlight of the trip. It’s something that “Explore” would really like to use. We were at the farmstead and met a local family, but didn’t just meet them and say hello, but did something interactive. Baking bread is amazing, and we actually saw what we were going to eat for dinner. I think it would be perfect for the family market. I can see family groups spending an evening there, staying overnight and having a breakfast in the morning. A perfect experience for that kind of groups.”
There’s more to see in Belarus: picturesque national parks, including legendary relict Belaveża forest, heroic Brest fortress and Marc Chagall’s birth city Viciebsk. Lots of Belarusian mysteries are looking forward to be revealed: luckily, the country has never been as close to travelers as it is now, and surely is about to pop up on many “to-visit” lists.
“I would suggest 3 negatives and 4 positives about Belarus. The first negative is that it’s an unknown destination. However, if a tour operator will be able to work into an itinerary a feeling that a client is heading where nobody has been before, it can be turned into a positive. The second one is definitely negative: visas. The third point is ease of travel: nowadays one cannot simply travel from west to east through Belarus, so the tour product is limited. Positive number 1 is, as I’ve mentioned, that it’s an unknown, secret destination. Number 2: we have all been so surprised about how friendly everybody was there. People in Belarus are just amazingly open and welcoming. The third positive is the product. Minsk itself is a perfect city break destination, but there is also a good product range outside of it. The first positive, I think, might be reasonable pricing.” – Derek Moore, AITO CEO.
Keith Kenward, AITO Executive Director:
“This is a destination that offers a wide variety of specialist activities, which will be of much interest to our members who focus on this area of the travel industry. Some of our members are already sending their customers to Belarus and we look forward to introducing more in the future.”
For today, a number of foreigners, including the UK nationals, do not need a visa to visit Belarus for a 30 days’ period. Just make sure that you arrive and depart by plane via the Minsk National Airport and have a valid passport, a medical insurance and a sum of money (around €22 for a day of a visit).