Belarus boasts a vast array of attractions for visitors and is determined to develop its tourism industry to take advantage of them.
The country has great natural beauty – including two national parks designated World Heritage sites by the United Nations – and a wealth of attractions, including ancient cities, medieval castles, art galleries and museums.
Reflecting this diversity, Belarus was tipped by the Daily Mail and The Times newspapers in the UK as one of the hottest destinations in 2009, and the Government has launched a programme to boost tourist numbers significantly over the coming years. By 2010, tourism offices will be opened in London, Paris, Berlin and Rome.
In preparation, the government is supporting a wide range of tourism including walking, cycling, horse riding and water sports.
Minsk is a developing city break destination with increasing numbers of international airlines, including Lufthansa and Austrian Airlines, opening routes to the city, and direct flights available via the national carrier Belavia from all the major European capitals.
Tourists are also travelling to other parts of the country, in particular the city of Brest, near the Polish border, and Vitebsk, once home to painter Marc Chagall and host to the annual Slavonic Bazaar, a festival of central and eastern European culture.
A major attraction in Belarus is its national parks, with Bereza State wildlife reserve, Belovezhskaya Puscha national park, Braslav Lakes, and Pripyatskiy national park attracting tens of thousands of visitors a year.
For investors, the hotel sector offers many opportunities, with new hotels required and many state-owned hotels due to be privatised. International chains such as Crowne Plaza and Hyatt have already invested in Belarus.
To encourage this investment the Government is signalling it will grant land rights and construction permits to private operators. And since 2006, new hotels are exempt from profit tax for the first three years of operation.
A priority for Belarus is the development of ‘agritourism’, offering visitors the chance to live on traditional homesteads and learn about local culture and traditions while exploring the countryside.
Many of these farms are based around national parks and are increasingly popular with visitors keen to learn more about the traditional lifestyles of the region.
Some farms specialise in teaching visitors about particular aspects of farming – one homestead, for example, in the south west of the country has a museum devoted to bee-keeping. Almost all offer horse-riding, walks and bicycle tours of the local countryside.
The Belarusian government has done much to encourage agritourism, introducing national standards for farm management and knowledge of traditional culture, including cuisine, for participating farms. It has also arranged grants to help farmers develop a viable tourist offer and has a target of 1000 participating homesteads by 2010.
Recently it has been helped by the United Nations Development Programme which awarded grants to environmentally sustainable agritourism projects in the Belavezhskaya Puscha region, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.