No Visa Re­quired

Economy of Belarus - - FRONT PAGE - Sergei GAVRITSKY

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.

What’s Next?

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.

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