'Europe's last dictatorship' has a new plan: tourism

Victory Square in Minsk, Belarus. Photo / Getty Images
Victory Square in Minsk, Belarus. Photo / Getty Images

It's a flat, landlocked country most known for its chilly winters. It was famously dubbed the "last dictatorship" in Europe - a place where even the country's leader, in place for the past 22 years, has described his politics as authoritarian. It's a former Soviet republic where the KGB is still called the KGB, and where people still work on collective farms and at state-owned vodka companies. And perhaps most tellingly, the World Health Organisation says it has the highest rate of alcohol consumption in the world.

The country, of course, is Belarus - long the odd man out in Europe. But if Minsk has its way, it could also be something else: the continent's newest tourist hot spot.

This week, the press service of the president of Belarus announced that visa-free travel was being established for citizens of 80 countries - a lengthy list that includes the entire European Union as well as the United States.

The rules will apply to people who arrive at the Minsk National Airport and will cover a five-day stay in the country. They will go into force next month.

The Minsk cityscape and Holy Spirit Cathedral overlook the Svisloch River in Belarus. Photo / Getty Images
The Minsk cityscape and Holy Spirit Cathedral overlook the Svisloch River in Belarus. Photo / Getty Images

There are plenty of motives for opening up visa-free travel - notably, the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has already indicated that it hopes the EU will make some kind of reciprocal move for people from Belarus who want to visit Europe. But it's also not hard to see that tourism may be on Minsk's mind.

"The Belarusian Sport and Tourism Ministry expects that the number of tourist arrivals will go up by 20 percent," official Vitaly Gritsevich told reporters Tuesday, adding that initially officials were seeking tourists from "Europe, North America and the Persian Gulf."

The announcement comes hot on the heels of other tourist-friendly policies. An area along the border with Lithuania and Poland was opened up to visa-free travel in October; reports suggest that thousands of tourists have made the trip since then. The month after, officials announced that they were planning to work with the UN World Tourism Organisation to help update Belarus's national tourism brand (currently promoted by the not-so-catchy slogan "Hospitality without borders").

Narachanski National Park in Belarus. Photo / Getty Images
Narachanski National Park in Belarus. Photo / Getty Images

Meanwhile, in anticipation of Western tourists, Minsk's subway may begin airing English-language announcements, as it did the last time tourists came en masse - for the 2014 ice hockey world championships. Local tourism authorities have also recently published a promotional booklet on tourism in eight languages.

"We wanted to convey the atmosphere of tranquility, cleanliness, comfort and total absence of haste," Irina Gordiyenko, the head of marketing at the National Tourism Agency, told Belarus's state news agency, explaining that these are the qualities foreign tourists note while visiting the country.

Not many foreign tourists generally make it to Belarus, however. Official statistics suggest that there were 137,400 organised visits by foreign tourists in 2014, though outside experts have questioned the validity of those figures. Even if they are accurate, they are pitifully small - neighboring Lithuania, another former Soviet nation that has embraced the West, is reported to have seen 2.4 million tourists the same year.

Holy Spirit cathedral at dusk. Photo / Getty Images
Holy Spirit cathedral at dusk. Photo / Getty Images

Most of the tourists Belarus has received over the past few years have come from Russia and other former Soviet states and did not require a visa. However, most visitors from outside the Commonwealth of Independent States tended to need a visa - and they were required to undergo a fairly complicated application process, which made visiting without the use of a Belarusian travel agency difficult.

So why would Belarus suddenly want foreign tourists? There are two very plausible theories, and unsurprisingly, both involve Russia. The first is that the small Belarusan economy has long been almost entirely dependent on trade with its giant neighbor. However, as Russia's economy has stalled over the past few years, Minsk has been forced to look elsewhere for business. Tourism only has room to grow.

Mir Castle in Belarus. Photo / Getty Images
Mir Castle in Belarus. Photo / Getty Images

At the same time, political relations with Moscow have been strained after Ukraine's civil war and Russia's annexation of Crimea, with Belarus notably seeking more independence out of fear that it could be next. Visa-free travel might be another small step toward a more open relationship with Europe and the United States.

Less clear is whether this will all result in a more open Belarusian system - Human Rights Watch recently noted that the country's notoriously bad human rights environment hadn't improved overall in 2015. For now at least, potential visitors might face something of a moral dilemma. But if you do want to visit, some are apparently calling Minsk the "new Warsaw."

- Washington Post

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