No Visa Required
It will be easier for foreign nationals to visit another popular tourist attraction in Belarus as from late October. The Belarus President signed Decree No. 318 on 23 August to enable visa-free travel for foreigners to certain areas of the country. The decree will come into force soon. Foreign visitors will be able to stay for up to five days without visas in the tourism and recreation park Augustow Canal and adjacent areas. Similar regulations are already in place in the national park Belovezhskaya Pushcha. The practice may be adopted in Grodno Oblast, too, taking into account the specific background of the region. Unlike in Belovezhskaya Pushcha, visa-free travel regulations in the Augustow Canal area will apply to more populated territories such as the canal itself, the Neman River and the ancient city of Grodno where places of interest are abundant. It is understandable that tourists have a strong interest in them. Tourism produces a positive effect on the regional economy. The open border policy is designed to bring more tourists and more investments and create more employment opportunities for the local population.
Come One, Come All
The decree was eagerly awaited by those involved in the promotion of the Augustow Canal. Grodno Oblast representatives were directly involved in drafting the document.
“It is very important for us. More and more tourists come here. The popularity of the Augustow Canal as a tourist attraction is on the rise, this is why we use an integrated approach to the matter,” noted Oleg Andreichik, Head of the Sport and Tourism Office of the Grodno Oblast Executive Committee.
The official underlined the uniqueness of the presidential
decree: instead of one place of interest, it will open the entire Grodno District to the world. The rules are simple. Those, who enter Belarus via the BelarusianLithuanian border crossings Privalka-raigardas and PrivalkaSvendubre or via the BelarusianPolish border crossings BruzgiKuznica and Lesnaya-rudawka will be able to stay in the Augustow Canal Park without visas for up to five days.
The Lesnaya-rudawka border crossing, which is located on the Augustow Canal proper, will be adjusted soon to better accommodate tourists. In the past, the border crossing operated seasonally and serviced only water transport. In other words, only those traveling by kayaks or small vessels could cross the border here. Now work is in progress to allow hikers or bicyclists to cross the border here as well.
Ten kilometers away from the Belarusian part of the Augustow Canal, there is the R11 route GreeceScandinavia aka Green Velo, which connects the Baltic states and Transcarpathia. Plans have been made to include the bicycle routes in the Augustow Canal Park into the European network. A lot of them have already been set up. Those traveling along them will see truly captivating sights.
Oleg Andreichik noted: “Bicycle tourism is on the rise in Europe, and we need to grab every opportunity to bring tourists to Belarus.” With this in mind, plans have been made to open bicycle rent and maintenance stations along the Augustow Canal. It is also necessary to up catering and general service standards without focusing on one specific category of tourists.
With visa requirements lifted, it will be much easier to travel to Grodno or Lithuanian Druskininkai along the Augustow Canal and the Neman River.
How Will It Work and Who Will Come?
Foreign citizens will be granted the right to stay in the tourism and recreation park Augustow Canal for five days. Travel agencies are expected to take good care of them. A special website is in development. It will offer information about authorized travel agencies, guides, interpreters, places for rest and recreation as well as specify the area where tourists will be able to stay without visas. The website with the working title Grodno Without Visas is expected to go online by early November. Other matters are being taken care of, too, for instance, how tourists without visas will enter the country and who will make sure they stay in the visa-free area.
The Augustow Canal is believed to be a popular tourist attraction. Statistics indicates that the number of tourists enjoying their vacations over there has grown in the last 12 months. For instance, in JanuaryJuly 2016 the canal welcomed over 42,000 tourists, up from about 40,000 tourists in the same period of last year. In 2015, the Augustow Canal hosted nearly 70,000 visitors. This year’s numbers are expected to be higher. Nearly all of them are participants of various mass events from festivals to tourist conventions and rafting trips.
The number of passengers opting for water transport has risen as well. Over 20,000 people were transported along the Augustow Canal and the Neman River in H1 2016, just 2,200 fewer than in the entire last year.
However, the share of foreign visitors in the total number of tourists is small for now. Only a handful of them bought tours and tourism services.
“We expect a certain breakthrough once the decree comes into force,” noted Sergei Koleda, a tourism expert, Deputy Chairman of the public association Republican Tourism and Sport Union. “Why couldn’t Poles come here before, for instance? Because in order to travel along the Belarusian part of the canal they had to get visas, drive at least two times to Bialystok to submit papers and get them back only to be able to cross the border via the LesnayaRudawka border crossing as a group. Was that difficult? You bet it was!”
For example, if people holidaying on the Polish side of the canal were to want to travel along the entire canal, they would have
never gotten to because of all this hassle.
Although the procedure is still being polished, it will be easier for foreign visitors to cross the border now: they will be encouraged to visit the dedicated website, buy tourism services from an authorized travel agency, cross the border without problems and enjoy their stay in Belarus.
To tell the truth, in order to draw tourists, Belarus has yet to enable the necessary conditions. Grodno authorities believe the goal is hard to reach but doable.
A Hospitality Test
“First of all, we should demonstrate how hospitable we are,” believes Oleg Andreichik. “This is why our customer service should be up to international standards.”
Specialists unanimously agree that public catering can sometimes discourage foreigners from visiting a country instead of attracting them. It is necessary to achieve both qualitative and quantitative improvements, and the state cannot accomplish that on its own. Investors are invited to develop public catering under favorable terms. For instance, the administration of the Augustow Canal Park promised considerable preferences to entrepreneurs willing to accomplish their own projects in the area. Consultative aid will be available across the entire lifespan of such a business.
For the first time, a visa-free travel area will include a major population center. Home to 350,000 citizens, Grodno is one of the oldest cities in the country that has stood
the test of time and has always appealed to tourists.
“I am pleased that Grodno is also part of the visa-free travel area. It is an ancient city with numerous places of interest. Naturally, the removal of visa requirements will make it more attractive. We understand perfectly that tourists, particularly foreign visitors, will bring money, which will contribute to economic growth of the region. Still, to encourage tourists to spend money here, we need to create a tourist-friendly environment,” noted Grodno Mayor Mechislav Goi.
The head of the city administration noted that it does not matter who will do this. Grodno is on the lookout for investors willing to create jobs, including in public catering. For its part, the city administration has put a serious offer on the table: free premises in municipal buildings for a period of several years.
“The city and the district have been granted a unique opportunity to attract customers to hotels and cafes even in the low season. We just have to become truly open for foreign travelers. Everyone should pitch in — museums and theaters, hotels, cafes, restaurants, and even public transport. Everything should be done in a way to make tourists want to come here again,” said Sergei Koleda. “Although a lot has been done already, we have little time left. We have to roll up our sleeves and get busy.”
By the way, more attention will be paid to navigation and helping tourists find their whereabouts. This is important. For instance, those who contact the tourist information center in Grodno often ask how they can get from the city to the Augustow Canal, what places of interests they can see along the way, like World War One forts or the palace in Svyatsk. When tourists are told that public transport goes to those places once per day or so, they leave disappointed. A car rental could fix the issue but this universally available service is underdeveloped in Grodno.
There are quite many places of interest and events in the region that can attract foreign tourists. Enumerating all of them is hardly interesting, but specialists assured that there are places of interest for all kinds of tourism: active tourism, religious tourism, historical tourism, educational tourism.
“It is now important to be able to sell the place of interest to the customer. The effort goes beyond advertising. The ability to present yourself and your attraction in a favorable light is the key to success,” noted Oleg Andreichik. He underlined that speaking foreign languages is essential. This free piece of advice applies not only to hotel and public catering business. There is hardly an area of life which is not related to tourism, one way or another.
Further novelties for the tourism industry will depend on how the new visa rules pan out in Grodno. The region authorities understand this well.
“We have been granted a lot of freedom. A great deal will depend on how we use it, including whether new visa-free travel areas will be arranged or not. Grodno Oblast is a pioneer in this regard. It is very important to avoid mistakes,” noted Oleg Andreichik.
Sergei Koleda agrees with the statement. However, he hopes the borders of the visa-free travel area in Grodno Oblast will be expanded.
“If things work the way we want them to, why cannot we let foreigners visit beautiful local health centers without visas? We could also make the Grodno airport part of the visa-free travel area, too,” he said.
The number of tourists that will come to see places of interest and tourist attractions in Grodno and the region will be the answer to the question whether the region has done everything to attract tourists. The presidential decree will stay in effect until the end of 2017. If everything is fine, it can be extended for an indefinite term. The next year will show whether the city and region have turned into a truly popular travel destination.