With its rich historical and cultural heritage, excellent geographical positioning and abundance of natural beauty, Belarus has a strong tourism sector which is expected to grow even further in the following period. In addition to traditional tourism, Belarus also offers impressive MICE-opportunities, and has excellent sports and medical potential. Aleksandr Shamko, Minister of Sports and Tourism, discusses the country’s potential and the priorities of the sports and tourism sector.
European Times: What are the main priorities of the Ministry of Sport and Tourism?
Aleksandr Shamko: Our first primary mission is the development of the tourism sector, which is one of the most promising sectors of the Belarusian economy due to several factors, such as the advantageous geographical position of our country; the presence of trans-European transport highways and tourist infrastructure; the numerous monuments of history and culture; the rapid development of the sports infrastructure and the large number of international sports events held; the development of a system of health care facilities and sanatorium-resort treatment of the highest level; the preservation of the natural landscapes and the richness of the flora and fauna; etc.
When it comes to sports, the primary task of our ministry is promoting the involvement of the maximum number of people in sports; the construction and maintenance of sports facilities, health centres, sports clubs; the training of experts and high-class athletes; etc. After all, sport is the health of the nation, which is why it is one of the priority areas of the Belarusian social policy.
European Times: Is Belarus attractive as a tourist destination? What are some of the recent developments in this sector?
Aleksandr Shamko: Belarus has excellent tourism potential, characterized by a well-developed transport infrastructure, rich historical and cultural heritage, rich spiritual culture, unique monuments of history and nature, etc, and annually attracts more than five million tourists. Its favourable geographical position at the centre of Europe at the intersection of many important transit routes provides opportunities for MICE-tourism, recreation and entertainment. Its rich natural and historical and cultural heritage enables the development of various tourism activities: ecological, cultural, cognitive, military-patriotic, religious, ethnic, etc. In addition to traditional tourism, industrial and gastronomic tourism is actively developing. Among the trends in 2017, we forecast an increase in the popularity of ecotourism, event and business tourism, as well as self-booking trips. Online travel agents will become an important player in the tourism market.
Belarus hosts many world-renowned international festivals and cultural events. Just in 2016, the “Year of Culture”, more than 100 different kind of festivals were held. Almost every weekend there are events that attract both residents and foreign citizens. Most interesting destination is the capital Minsk, a dynamically developing city which offers an interesting combination of modern and historical buildings, rich gastronomical and cultural experience and an abundant nightlife.
European Times: How would you describe the development of sport in Belarus?
Aleksandr Shamko: Belarus is among the world leaders when it comes to sports; our athletes are among the best performers on the Olympic Games and have won 76 Olympic medals so far. We have training centres for professional athletes, including the Belarusian State University of Physical Education, the Olympic Reserve School, as well as specialized schools and children’s and youth sports schools. There are 453 specialized educational and sports institutions which engage more than 176.000 young athletes. Furthermore, there are excellent conditions for the development of sports, including ice arenas that adhere to the highest standards (such as the sports complexes Minsk-Arena and Chizhovka Arena), football arenas, velodrome, tennis courts, various sports and recreation complexes, sports facilities, ski centres (such as Logoisk, Silichi, Mozyr, Raubichi), etc.
The Belarusian government, under the Presidential Decree aimed at supporting physical culture and sport organizations, is firmly dedicated to supporting and developing the sector. This is done through several measures, including: stimulates business initiatives and sport enterprises, primarily sport clubs; grants tax benefits to sport organizations; exempts participants at international sports events from certain fees; etc.
Belarus hosts numerous sport forums, competitions and events, such as the hockey Christmas tournament for the best amateur teams, the final match of the Belarus-USA federations tennis cup (both held in 2017), as well as other global competitions in many sports. Upcoming major sporting events include the Second European Games to be held in 2019, and the World Hockey Championship, to be held in 2021.
European Times: What is your personal message to prospective investors and tourists?
Aleksandr Shamko: Belarus is a safe, clean, convenient place for work and life. Today, many foreign investors turn to the unused potential in the heart of Europe. In addition to our good raking on the World Bank Doing Business Report, Belarus ranked 6th by the World Tourism and Travel Council according to the forecast of investments in the tourism industry. Our favourable legislative base for foreign investments has already attracted 24 large investment projects in the tourism sector amounting to US$150 million, most of them for the construction of health-tourism complexes. Our country has excellent sport and tourism potential, which our ministry, together with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is promoting abroad through exhibitions, presentations, press releases and study tours. I invite both tourists and investors to visit and experience the advantages of Belarus.