The National Agency for Tourism of Belarus has a new director. Grigory Pomerantsev has great work experience in international companies. He worked as a top manager for airBaltic in Latvia and created Fly Georgia airline in Georgia.In the interview to Naviny.by Grigory told how politics affect tourism, when lowcosters are to appear in Belarus and what he thinks about the fashion on vyshivanki (traditional embroidery shirts).
– Grigory, you have worked in Latvia, Georgia and Russia, have been airBaltic Corporation Vice-president for sales. Hardly any Belarusian official can boast such an employment record. How did the Ministry of Sports and Tourism managed to get hold of you?
– Actually, it sometimes seems I have lived several lives. I was fortunate enough to work in different countries, in large companies, with high-level professionals. But I have always known that I’d return to Belarus, I wanted to develop tourism here, and therefore accepted the offer.
— Tell us about your work on the latest project in Georgia.
— It was a company with Iranian capital Fly Georgia. But for political reasons it was closed.
— Due to the sanctions against Iran?
– Yes, after the elections in Georgia, it was forbidden to fly there. I realized it was an adventurous project to some extent. In terms of aviation, Georgia is open to competition with the whole world. In addition, Iran has restored visa regime with Georgia, and it was our priority market at the time.
Flights from Iran were sold out, as for its inhabitants, Georgia was one of the few open countries, just a half an hour flight. But, once visa requirements were restored, the flow faded away within few weeks. After that we hoped to set up an air link with Russia, but that did not happen. In addition, we lost another market, the Ukraine one, for the obvious reasons – Kiev-Tbilisi flights go above Donetsk. The Crimean air space cannot be used because international insurance companies announce that your contract will be void, if you fly over the Crimea. You can certainly fly all the way around the Black Sea, but it makes the flight an hour longer and, obviously, increases the costs.
— How much do politics affect tourism?
— A lot. We had great expectations for Fly Georgia, but, obviously, the right time has not come yet.
– How long have you been considering the proposal to take the post of the Director of the National Agency for Tourism?
– Not very long. It is a promising job; Belarus is approaching a very interesting period…
– Do you think so? It’s believed that we’re going through a catastrophic period now and it’s true for tourism.
– In terms of economic performance, this is undoubtedly complicated time for companies. I’ve seen several economic crises while I have been working in Latvia and now I am sure that it is necessary to work efficiently, particularly in priority areas and cut off the inessential.
And it’s necessary to cooperate.
– The Deputy Minister has recently criticized the managers in the Ministry of Sport and Tourism; he said that the experts of the international cooperation department do not speak any foreign language. They write on the forums that a tourist will experience difficulties in Belarus if he does not speak Russian. How can we change this situation? How is it possible to make Belarusians finally learn at least English?
– Learning a foreign language is a matter of advanced training, which is quite a solvable problem. The time will come when the knowledge of English language be a basic requirement when hiring. And we are on the way to reach this stage. Belarus is in the heart of Europe, so if one wants to be successful, he needs to learn English at least.
– For more than 20 years of independence Belarus has not become a recognisable country yet, even in Europe. Tour operators are still explaining at the international exhibitions that Belarus is a separate country; it is not a part of Russia. Do you have any idea how to change this situation?
– Belarusian inbound tourism has recently started developing. This is a fairly expensive direction in tourism and it won’t start bringing profits instantly. As far as the ideas are concerned, we should invite foreign journalists and tour operators more often, show them our country, so that they deliver information to their customers. In addition, our tourism experts certainly have to work on the quality and promotion, on the Internet in the first. Mobile technologies have to be used more effectively. Hashtag Belarus should appear more often on the social networks. I can say, that wherever I went, I have always heard only positive feedbacks about Belarus and Belarusians. This is a good background for promotion.
– Who will pay for the promotionl tours for the media and tour operators? Belarusian travel agencies budgets are already bulging at the seams.
– If we want to develop inbound tourism, all the industry members have to cooperate in pursuing one purpose. There are nearly always empty seats on the flights, unsold rooms at the hotels and available tour guides at the travel agencies. We can certainly leave everything as it is. But we can coordinate and work for the common purpose that will attract tourists to Belarus.
– How do you figure it to yourself? Our hotels, especially the state ones, when asked, why they have such low discounts, answer: “You don’t have to work with us if you don’t like it?”
– It is, of course, an oldfasioned approach: do not change anything; the main things are accounting and monitoring. But the market dictates other conditions. While in some hotels rooms are empty, other hotels sell them, at least at half the price. When it strikes midnight, you’d better make a 50% discount than lose a customer. In tourism industry, all members are interdependent. A hotel is unable to work on its own, without a travel agency’s support. Travel agencies can work only in cooperation with airline companies, etc.
– You realized the same when you worked with the brand Live Rīga, didn’t you?
– Exactly. Brand Live Rīga united such separate entities as airBaltic, Riga City Council, the Association of Hotels and Restaurants as well as the Association of Travel Agencies in Latvia. The chosen motto was, in my opinion, very effective: “What is good for a Riga resident is good for tourists.” In other words, every resident of the capital was, actually, involved in the process of the city improvement, so that more tourists would come to Riga.
– That’s a good idea, but is it going to work for Belarus? They have recently tried to open a hostel on the ground floor of a residential house in the center of Minsk. Local people believed that the homeless would live there, so they got the hostel to be banned. What I am trying to say is that Belarusians still do not understand what they will benefit from tourism.
– Belarusians still spend little time on travelling. Undoubtedly, It does affect their perception. If the residents of this house had traveled abroad at least once and lived in a hostel themselves, they, for sure, would have had a different opinion on the matter. But travelling is getting more and more available, so one day there will be more and more low-budget hotels opened in Minsk, just like it happened in Riga. In addition, tourism creates new workplaces; people should be informed about it as well.
– Georgia has become one of the most popular tourist destinations in Eastern Europe for the past few years. What can we learn from their experience?
– Firstly, visa requirements have been relaxed in Georgia. The second, the aviation market has been liberalized; any company may apply and fly to Georgia, despite the national airline company is still functioning. The third, Georgians realize why tourists come to their country. They are proud of their culture and traditions, and surely, know how to sell things.
– Visa regime with European countries is, probably, the most acute problem for tourism in Belarus. The officials of the Ministry of Sport and Tourism are constantly saying that visa requirements should be relaxed. Security Chiefs are resisting it most of all. Can the authorities come to an agreement, or we still need a discretionary decision of the President?
– Security and finances are the two issues we need a compromise on. I am sure there are mechanisms of safety protection in relaxed visa regime; and these mechanisms have already been tested and are true around the world. Concerning treasury revenues, a tourist arriving in Belarus without a visa will spend much more money in the country. The opponents of visa liberalization should understand this thing.
I would like to cite the example of St. Petersburg. By a discretionary decision, the tourists arriving on cruise ships were allowed to stay in the city without a visa for three days. It was impossible anywhere else in Russia. The number of tourists has increased by half a million for just one year. Before that, they had just sailed past St. Petersburg.
In Latvia, we have attracted a huge number of tourists using the transit potential. Minsk is located on the crossroads of the most important transit routes, as well as Riga. Therefore, Minsk airport with the national airline company serving as a network carrier has enormous potential. A passenger reads information about Belarus on the plane, buys souvenirs and other local products at the airport. After that, if you allow him to stay in the country without a visa for three days, he will discover Belarus for himself and return here again.
– Do you think this idea can work out given the fact that we still don’t have lowcosters? It is obviously expensive to fly with “Belavia”, so the airport in Vilnius is also called “Minsk-3”.
– On the one hand, the aviation market liberalization will increase the flow of tourists. On the other hand, a balance has to be struck. Otherwise the national airline company carries a risk to go bankrupt, as Air Lituanica did. “Belavia” has recently turned into a strong and more efficient airline company. Transit traffic is increasing, which means the company can compensate for the loss of passenger traffic on the local market by means of the transfer. Consequently, the liberalization can cause less damage. I think it’s high time to be more open, including lowcosters. However, this process has to be monitored.
– Do you mean launching lowcosters only in the directions, where “Belavia” has no flights yet?
– Exactly. Otherwise, people will continue flying from Vilnius, Moscow and Kiev, as they do now.
– The tourists who visited Belarus often say that our country has remained Soviet in many aspects. Russians like it most of all, as they are nostalgic about those times. Do you think we should get away from that image or make money out of it?
– We could create a tourist facility, or a route to the places of the Soviet era. We could do it with a touch of irony, for example, as a park with portrait sculptures near Druskininkai or Brezhnev villa in Jurmala.
– Is there any danger that we will remain a spot of Socialism reminiscence? As for me, Belarus is a modern European country. And I wouldn’t like it to be associated with Lenin and Stalin.
– The tourist will have a good impression if you show it as a separate product on the background of the changes the country has gone through over the last years. On the contrary, he will see how much Belarus has changed. The contrast will arouse even a greater interest.
– The majority of tourists come to our country from Russia. But after the crisis broke out Russian tourists do not have the money to go on holiday even to Belarus. The problem will obviously remain for more than a year. What should Belarusian travel agencies do? Where can they find new tourists?
– I think the situation is not going to change proportionally. Russian tourists will prevail in the inbound tourism structure. Airplanes from Minsk fly to Moscow most often. However, we shouldn’t concentrate only on this segment. We should find out what flights from Minsk to Europe are most successful and develop these directions. In addition, we have the potential in the Asian direction. The largest Chinese tour operators arrived in Belarus the other day to study our country. The direct Minsk-Beijing flight has acted as a fillip.
– Imagine that a German is going in transit through Belarus; he has never been here before. What sites would you advice him to visit?
– The German is most likely to arrive in Minsk by plane. First of all he will see the airport and good roads on the way to the city. He will definitely pay attention to the dynamic building of new sites in the capital. He will notice new residential areas, business centers, the National Library and the Museum of the Great Patriotic War…
– Do you think Germans will feel comfortable here?
– I think it will be interesting for them to visit the Museum. I saw the reaction of Latvians during an excursion; they were absolutely shocked at what they had seen. An interest in the war theme has aroused lately. It’s essential to analyze the past so that those terrible events do not occur again.
– Would you take a German to the country?
– Of course. I would take him to Mir and Nesvizh. I am sure he will be impressed by our castles. Besides that, he has to see Belarusian nature, which is especially appreciated by foreigners, as well as organic and natural food.
– First of all you described Minsk. Don’t you think it’s too sterile a city for a European tourist? Street musicians are banned, city fairs are rarely held and resemble “Dozhinki”; even Karl Marx street, the only pedestrian street in the city, was closed!
– I agree with you, we need more atmosphere and informal events. For example, for street musicians, several venues could be defined, so that they can perform. I used to sing in the streets of Cologne myself with the student choir. We were on a tour from the University and entertained ourselves in our spare time this way. As far as I remember, we could learn when and where we could perform in a special department so that the musicians didn’t have clashes and didn’t interfere with each other.
– “Bulbash-beach” has recently been opened in Minsk. Is it reasonable to use the nickname “Bulbash” for tourist facilities, in your opinion? I cannot imagine “Moskal center …” to be opened in Moscow.
– You certainly have to take into account what response such a title will have among tourists, including Belarusian ones. You can’t build a successful business, using negative strategies. I think gradually, such titles will stop being used.
– “Vyshivanki” (embroidery articles) has become trendy in Belarus over the last year. The elements of national ornament are used on clothes, accessories and even cars. What do you think of it? Maybe we should use it for the tourist brand of the country
– It’s wonderful that people value their traditions. I have recently been to a museum in Strochitsy. I accidentally saw a wedding where not only the bride and the groom, but the guests, as well, were dressed up in the national outfit. It looked amazing. I have seen something like this only in Latvia before. The elements of national culture should definitely be used in tourism promotion.
Grigory Pomerantsev was born in Novosibirsk in 1974. He moved with his family to Belarus at the age of 11. He graduated from Minsk State Linguistic University (English and German) in 1996. He started his career at the dealership of SAS airline company (Scandinavian Airlines). He worked in airBaltic (Latvian airline) from 1997 to 2012; he was promoted to the position of the sales vice president for. He participated in the development of the city tourism bureau Live Rīga. He has served as a commercial director for “Tolmachevo” airport in Novosibirsk for two years. In Georgia, he participated in establishing the national lowcoster FlyVista from scratch. He is serving as an acting director of the National Agency for Tourism in Belarus at the moment. He is married, has three children.
Text and photo by Naviny.by