Despite being located in continental Europe, only a few hundred kilometres from Kiev, Warsaw and the Baltics, the Belarusian capital of Minsk remains a mystery to the majority of Europeans. It is even less well known and appreciated elsewhere in the world; when thought of at all, it is widely regarded as a dreary Soviet outpost.
But those who do make time for Minsk may find many of their preconceptions regarding its unfairly dour image challenged, from the stylish bars and boutiques of Karl Marx Street to the leafy city parks and wide, handsome avenues to the striking white cathedrals of the small but pretty Old Town. Western food and retail chains are prevalent: at the corner of Lenin and Independence avenues, a multi-storey McDonald’s – packed with people at all times – stands opposite a TGI Friday’s franchise. Public spaces are exceptionally clean, and street crime is infrequent. While the city has its share of ugly post-war tower blocks and customer service in some places remains almost comically Slavic, it is on the whole a more attractive and more welcoming place than many might expect.
Paying a visit
The city’s leader, Andrei Victorovich Shorets, appointed chairman of the Minsk City Executive Committee in November 2014, is aware of these perceptions. He feels the only way to counter them is to convince people to come to Minsk.
“We invite everyone to visit us. When people visit us, they have a different opinion on things that they see with their eyes, in comparison with what they see on TV or read in the newspapers or on the internet. Minsk is a comfortable and cosy city that is not only nice for leisure or work, it also has a great investment climate,” he says.
Visiting Minsk, however, is not easy. The country’s strict visa procedures are off-putting, and flight connections are poor. There are no low-cost air carriers serving the city, keeping it beyond the pale for western European holiday makers looking for affordable city breaks (although also sparing it from the deluge of binge-drinking bachelor parties that have blotted many other eastern European capital cities). Violence in neighbouring Ukraine and fears of war in the region have not helped.
And then there are the domestic politics. The autocratic rule of president Alexander Lukashenko has brought regular condemnation from the US and EU, and made Belarus something of a pariah in Europe – that is, until it started enjoying a more dignified stature lately as a staging ground for peace talks between Russia and Ukraine. ‘Come holiday in the last dictatorship in Europe’ is not the best marketing slogan.
Which type of tourism?
Mr Shorets admits that Minsk is lacking any singular site that would draw in tourists by the masses, or give the city an iconic status. “During [World War Two] Minsk was almost fully destroyed and had to be rebuilt. Thus, we do not have historical masterpieces or the types of iconic monuments that attract tourists in the old cities of Europe, or in some regions of Russia. Apart from the Old Town we do not have any historical monuments,” he says.
But the city is working out how it can capitalise on the attributes it does have, and what its message to the world should be. “We are currently working on the creation of a city agency that will be responsible for improving the image of Minsk and making it an attractive destination for tourists. The aim is to promote tourism of various types: medical tourism, educational tourism, entertainment tourism – we have built an excellent aqua park – and business tourism,” says Mr Shorets.
The novelty factor of Belarus is something that, if used smartly, could be turned into an advantage: in an age of commoditised travel, there is very little uncharted territory left in Europe and very few major capital cities on the continent that are as misunderstood and overlooked as Minsk. Perhaps the message of the new city promotion agency should simply be: 'Come and see for yourself'.