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Belarus is country of pleasant surprise, deputy sport and tourism minister says

The French want to surprise tourists with croissants and Belarus with pancakes and the national dish called mochanka! What else? This week, the Ministry of Sports and Tourism of Belarus has opened their portal belarus.travel, which is expected to lure curious foreigners. The search for paparats-kvetka, unique forests, the lungs of Europe - swamps, bison and all other things are there, with a touch of conspiracy and slight mystery. "The country of pleasant surprise" - this is how organizers of inbound tourism portray Belarus. What really pleasantly surprises is the January decision to make entry to Belarus via National Airport Minsk for five days for citizens of 80 countries visa-free.

What "troops" (in the good sense of this word) can we expect? How is Belarus preparing for this? We are going to talk about it all with former paratrooper and now Deputy Minister of Sport and Tourism Mikhail Portnoi. He is in our studio now.

Mr Portnoi, hello!

Mikhail Portnoi, Deputy Minister of Sport and Tourism of the Republic of Belarus:
Good afternoon.

Can Belarus become a popular tourist country like France, Spain, Italy or Turkey?

Mikhail Portnoi:
To date, the potential of Belarus is not large enough. It is difficult to compete with the named countries today. But if we look into the future, yes.

Why should tourists come to Belarus? What do we have here? You have created a website, which is set to attract tourists.

Mikhail Portnoi:
This is a new video to promote our tourism potential. We made two of them: a 3-minute, a 5-minute one and also 30-second cuts (five pieces) for target audiences. My position in terms of tourism potential is based not only on my opinion, but also on the opinion of the Secretary General of World Tourism Organization Taleb Rifai. Last year, we invited him to our country. This was his first time in Belarus. The man had a distorted view of this country. He expected to see here a dark gray and miserable place. The man lived here for a week and left with his stereotypes completely broken, he found out another Republic of Belarus. He saw the state in the center of Europe. Beautiful people, beautiful country. Well-groomed roads and fields. And a well-developed tourism industry. Maybe it is not that well-developed, but we could say it is above satisfactory.

You surprised him. A country of pleasant surprise.

Mikhail Portnoi:
As reads today our website, this is our little slogan.

Who invented it? After all, you can be surprised in Spain and in Albania. What do we want to put in that message?

Mikhail Portnoi:
Immediately there was Terra incognita - unknown Belarus. In London, at the exhibition, we had such a position, such a slogan. Today, we are moving forward. There was an opinion among many that this is a country in the middle of Europe, all ways are going through Belarus, so during WWI and WWII there was much destruction here and nothing was left and everything was rebuilt from scratch. This is a wrong perception. The country has more than 5,500 objects of historical and cultural heritage. Of these, four are already included in the UNESCO World Heritage list, and it will be updated. For comparison, Russia, with its large territory and population, has only 26. Very stepped forward very much in the development of infrastructure. For example, in the promotion of sports truism. The main event here was the 2014 IIHF WM. It gave a lot in terms of experience, it improved our infrastructure. Belarus now has many world-class facilities, which can host trainings and competitions at various levels. And we use it successfully. For example, in 2015 we had 60 major events and in order to step up this trend we had to give the participants the right for visa-free entry. In 2016 we already had 80. And the biggest of them are stages of cups in various sports, the Race of Legends and so on. Everyone knows that Belarus loves sport. President shows by his example what a healthy nation is.

Not everyone is going to play sports. In the video, I saw a large number of churches. We are counting on Western tourists who come to see the churches, aren't we? But we could film the mosque. We have one, and Muslims could maybe visit Belarus for this reason too.

Mikhail Portnoi:
Our videos are aimed at the target audience. We defined them as follows: our neighboring countries - Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States, Poland; then countries that have a visa-free entry before that visa-free decree - Israel, China; and the third group is Western Europe, primarily England and Germany.

I noticed a lot of beautiful girls. In the church and in the forest, and in the library. They come to Belarus to get a wife, don't they?

Mikhail Portnoi:
This is our national treasure - beautiful women and the most worthy men.

Many hotels have been built. For now they are not full. Maybe because it is expensive? Many of our hotels are of a luxury class. But we lack 2- and 3-star hotels.

Mikhail Portnoi:
To date, we don't have enough hotels. They will be built in the future. But the issue of their star rating is not resolved. We have no classification. We are working with our hotel business. It turned out that having the same star rating Baltic hotels, for example, are working better and offer higher-class services, while the number of staff is about 40% lower. This is also an issue. The main content of the costs of any facility, any hotel are salary and utility bills. And, accordingly, their competitiveness drops a little.

We should also work with restaurateurs. As my son says, Poland is a good country, where meals are large and it's not as expensive as in Belarus. By the way, speaking about the video... I did not see Belarusian cuisine. Where is mochanka or potato pancakes, which we are proud of? After all, gastronomic tourism occupies an important place.

Mikhail Portnoi:
You probably watched only one of the videos, you have to watch others too, since we have information about our cuisine too. Incidentally, just yesterday, at the Ministry of Sport, we had a small round table, brainstorming on that decree that abolishes visas to Belarus for 80 nations. We hope that the Republic of Belarus will get a restaurant with Michelin stars. Restaurateur Vadim Prokofiev was at that round table. He travels a lot. We also discussed the path of a potential tourist: he first sees the Belavia registration desk. Do our workers smile, are they kind? Next: work of stewardesses. Stewardesses hands out migration cards and an insert "Welcome to Belarus". In this leaflet there are four of our World Heritage sites, places to eat, where to stay, what tours are available and so on. Next logistics and city navigation.

Guards also...

Mikhail Portnoi:
Border guards and customs officers, yes. They also meet and smile to people. Yes, these are one of the first people.

Not always with a smile.

Mikhail Portnoi:
Work is active in this regard, it was started by General Rachkovsky, who offered...

Igor Anatolyevich, please teach guards to smile. They hired many women but they are severe.

Mikhail Portnoi:
Just yesterday at the national airport, we checked these questions as a potential tourist.

I understand... You have outlined all this way. So what? What is the conclusion? You talk about what is desirable. What else do we lack? Okay, border guards will smile, we will ask them.

Mikhail Portnoi:
Restaurateurs will offer people quality food, hotel business will give them accommodation.

But one decree will not force us to do everything. For this we should have some economic conditions, some benefits should be created. Like it was done for agro-tourism, which was then "cleared" from illegal businessmen.

Mikhail Portnoi:
Well, that was rather gentle criticism because the majority of people knew very well what this decree is about. And they were engaged in agro tourism in its purest form. But there were people who used loopholes in the law, engaged in restaurant and hotel business, there was tax evasion.

They have the same good benefits, so everyone rushed to agro-tourism. So here in Minsk we should also create economic conditions.

Mikhail Portnoi:
On December 6 last year we had the Presidium of the Council of Ministers, which addressed the issues of promoting tourism. These questions were voiced there. This is one section. Further. We need to move to using IT when shopping tours, we should not use paper documents anymore. It is difficult for tourists.

The market of tourist services, in my opinion, is the third largest in terms of profitability in the global economy. Therefore, we understand that Belarus should work in this regard. If we don't have oil and gas, we need to work with tourists.

Mikhail Portnoi:
Tourism must not give only 1.7% to the GDP, we need much more.

In some countries, I think, tourism accounts for 10% or more.

Mikhail Portnoi:
The best option is 10-12%. We are not a banana republic, we have a developed industry and agriculture.

You said several times that people from 80 countries will come. In January, a decision was made on visa-free entry for up to 5 days via the airport Minsk, for citizens from 80 countries. But life unfortunately makes us rhyme tourism and terrorism. Who will arrive without a visa? What about security?

Mikhail Portnoi:
Some opponents talked about this, but it is absolutely groundless, because it took 1.5 years to work out the document. We looked at this aspect in the first place, because safety is first in tourism. Only lovers of adrenaline go to countries where some crisis is raging. An example of Turkey shows that: tourist flows fell by 50% after certain things. We are not talking about any insecurity for the Republic of Belarus, let alone the adjacent states.

Russia reacted jealously to this. They said that now citizens from 80 countries will come to Belarus but there is no control at the border with Russia. And they will all go to Russia, they alleged.

Mikhail Portnoi:

We had consultations with the Foreign Ministry of the Russian Federation. They knew about it. Russia will not have such a problems. We are ready to ensure security in terms of the state.

But not the Ministry of Sport and Tourism.

Mikhail Portnoi:
No. I'm talking about the state. This decision was made correctly, in a timely manner.

Let tourists come here, bring and spend foreign currency here. Belarus will have more jobs, and if there are more tourists, it will mean better overall quality of life.

Mikhail Portnoi:
Absolutely right.

Belarus is country of pleasant surprise, deputy sport and tourism minister says