On Jan. 4, 2010, the Republic of Belarus signed into law its latest update of visa requirements for those who wish to travel to the country. According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Belarus extends a visa-free regime to holders of passports from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cuba, Republic of Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Macedonia, Moldova, Mongolia, Montenegro, Qatar, Russia, Serbia, Tajikistan, Turkey, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Venezuela, and Ecuador. For all others, most notably states within the Schengen Zone, and many English-speaking states like Australia, New Zealand, the United States, and Canada, a visa is required.
This article won’t go into great details on the steps required for itinerary-bound tourists and other visitors to travel to Belarus, such as the universal requirement to purchase travel insurance from a state-run agency (often before even getting a visa), but it will consider the lodging options that visitors might use when planning their trip to the country.
Belarusian law reads that visitors coming to the country, especially those arriving on a Tourist Visa, must register with the appropriate police station nearest their place of stay no more than 5 days after entering the country. If your planned stay in country is longer than five days, you should do so as quickly as possible after settling in. For some accommodations (hotels, sanatoriums, and health complexes in particular), this is handled automatically by the staff as part of the service they provide. For others (particularly guests taking part in hospitality exchanges), you will have to do this yourself.
If you are staying in a facility that handles registration for you, all you will need to do is hand over your passport to the person checking you in, and they’ll stamp your passport and enter your data into their computer, sometimes right in front of you, sometimes after 10-20 minutes processing. If you are staying someplace where this service is not provided, you’ll need to locate the nearest Citizenship and Migration Department (OGIM, sometimes also known as the “Pasportny Stol” or “Passport Table” when asking around the local police department) before your fifth day and register. If you are staying in a private home, you’ll need to secure the cooperation of the homeowner (usually pretty easy if you are staying with a friend), and get that person to accompany you to OGIM, where they’ll need to complete the paperwork. A minor fee is usually involved (roughly 5-8 USD converted into Belarusian currency – the actual amount, which depends on a state-set “basic unit”, may vary from this rough figure depending on the foreign currency exchange rate and fee-setting decisions made by Belarusian authorities).
When you go from one accommodation to the next, you’ll need to re-register if you plan to stay longer than five days. If you are moving around fast, staying two days here, three days there, the recommendation is to register at your first and last location, and to keep all your accommodation and transportation receipts to show passport control upon leaving the country.
The importance of abiding by registration requirements can’t be stressed strongly enough. Belarusian authorities are generally easy to get along with, as long as you follow their rules. However, if you fail to do so, Belarusian bureaucracy can be fairly weighty – most horror stories about heavy-handed treatment by immigration authorities usually involves a traveler neglecting the rules. Still, if you run afoul of the registration requirements for your visa (forget to register, lose your migration card with all the stamps on it), don’t panic. Presuming you aren’t at passport control when you discover you have a problem, just visit the nearest OGIM and follow the instructions given to you to sort out whatever is wrong. This may include assessing the amount of the fine that applies to you, going to a nearby bank to pay that fine, returning to OGIM with a receipt, and then getting an exit permit stamp on your Belarusian visa in your passport.
Belarus, after a quarter century of post-Soviet development, remains in the midst of an ongoing transition from its Soviet Intourist hotelier past into something that more resembles its neighbors in the EU and today’s Russian Federation.
Minsk in particular provides travelers with a peculiar set of options. For those traveling to the capital on a luxury budget and those traveling on a shoestring budget, plenty of options will present themselves. For travelers seeking more moderate traditional hotel options that don’t involve an adventure that would leave even “On the Road” author Jack Kerouac and “Travels with Charley” author John Steinbeck disconcerted, the options are much more limited. Of the 44 hotels that currently operate in the city, more than a third (about 16) are below a two star rating. On the other end of the spectrum, of the 15 hotels that are either in planning or under construction, and which will be brought on line in the national capital over the course of the next year, two thirds of these will be luxury class accommodations.
What this glut of high end options in the national capital will mean is that luxury travelers may find Minsk to be a comfortable first stop for package tourists on their way to other former-Soviet cities, presuming that such options remain open in the currently tense atmosphere of international relations. Certainly the availability of these high-end facilities bodes well for Belarus’ apparent diplomatic objectives. If President Alexander Lukashenko continues his success in turning Minsk into an peace negotiations venue between Russia and the EU, these luxury venues may eventually be able to market themselves as host facilities for other types of international conferences. Of course, continued stability in the midst of Russia’s war with Ukraine in the south will be the key requirement for this to happen.
The main advantage that tourists visiting Belarus will find in using hotels is that a reservation there can be useful when applying for a tourist visa. They also make guest registration with the police easy, even those that maintain the old Intourist standard for service and facilities. Meanwhile, the process of reserving a room in the more luxurious options is essentially the same as it is in most Western markets, and usually involves little more than a few clicks on the hotel’s webpage. The threat of identity theft through websites maintained by such chains as Crown Plaza, Warwick, or Hyatt is minimal, even if reserving in any of the former Soviet countries, but for those that are reserving a room in an independently or state-operated propery, such as the Minsk Hotel (opened in 2002 to replace the Soviet-era accommodation that carried the same name) or the President Hotel (opened in 2013 to replace the Soviet-era Hotel Oktyabrskaya), such reputable online reservation services as Booking.com and KAYAK can be used by the hacker-wary to set up everything in advance.
Hostels arrived fairly recently to Belarus, cutting into the tourist market share originally held by Soviet-era budget hotels. Belarusian hostels compare quite well to those in other countries, usually providing such basics as clean dormitories, showers, kitchen facilities (microwaves, refrigerators, etc.), widescreen televisions, entertainment ranging from Xbox to board games, and the occasional washing machine and souvenir vendor.
Guests can include anyone from the traditional backpacker to the road-wise businessman, from families with children to organized tour groups. As such, during certain times of the year, it pays to reserve well in advance.
As of spring 2015, the majority of hostels exist in Minsk; Hostelworld lists eight options for the capital city. One additional hostel, a fairly recently opened business, operates out of Brest. Minsk locations, meanwhile, vary with respect to convenience. One of the earliest hostels, Viva, operates within a kilometer of the train station on the first floor of an apartment building. Hostelworld’s highest rated option in May 2015, Hostel Revolucion, accepts guests in a commercial building situated near the Kastrychnitskaya-Kupalauskaya metro junction. Kinghostel occupies a set of converted apartments that overlook the Svislach River on one side and the US Embassy compound on the other.
Hostel owners are now required to register guests that present a foreign passport with migration card inside, stamping the card itself, and as with a hotel, this is usually a quick process. However, using a hostel reservation to secure a tourist visa is still a hit-or-miss prospect; some Belarusian embassies will accept a simple reservation confirmation, while others will go so far as to require not only a hotel reservation, but also proof of payment for the hotel stay. A hostel-reservation, meanwhile, will likely become a more reliably accepted tourist visa proof of accommodation option in the future, as hostels become more and more recognized as legitimate general accommodation options.
Whether rented from an individual homeowner or from an agency, short-stay apartments provide accommodations with most of the comforts of home. Apartments range from low-cost flats (with a corresponding level of quality and location) to five star-like accommodations set in the center of everything.
Arranging an apartment stay can be quite easy to set up. Online tourist agencies, some with their own website and some accessible through such websites as Booking.com, offer a variety of apartments in convenient areas of town, or even cottages (dachas) situated outside the city. Additionally, some provide that ever-important registration support that tourists require in order to enter Belarus.
Another similar option available in Minsk is the “aparthotel,” an apartment complex set up as a short-term stay hotel complex. Similar to a hotel suite accommodation, these provide spacious and comfortable accommodations, along with such support options as an airport shuttle, a concierge, security, exercise facilities, prepared breakfasts and, again, visa support. The “Comfort Hotel” apartment complex is the oldest of its type in Minsk, and on their website they describe their flats as being equivalent in comfort to a 3-star hotel.
After the Second World War came to an end, a countercultural movement rose up in America when writers like Kerouac, John Clellon Holmes, and Allen Ginsberg began romanticizing the beaten-down underground of people they found while traveling. These “Beatniks,” as they would be called, hitchhiked across the country, going from stranger’s house to stranger’s house in search for themselves. In the Soviet Union, a similar spark took hold in the Khruschev Thaw roughly a decade later, when Premier Nikita Khruschev transformed his country from rigid Stalinism into something that could foster such subcultures as the Stilyagi, the Beatnik’s Russian counterpart.
In Europe, Danish peace activist Bob Luitweiler sought to transform the nomadic inspiration of these ideals into an official student traveler exchange movement, where members would make their homes available to each other. This became the first organized open-door hospitality movement, and it served to unite peace movements across the continent, even as the more chaotic manifestation of the nomadic counterculture transformed into the worldwide hippie movement.
After the post-war generation’s rebellion peaked with the “Summer of Love” in 1967, nomadic travelers became less “revolutionary,” and more into simply seeing the world. In June 1991, as academic computer networking built to a critical mass, the first Internet-based hospitality network emerged with Hospex (short for Hospitality Exchange), a Polish student initiative. This organization opened the door for students to find affordable and free housing with other students from around the world for the first time through their desktop computer. Mostly operating through e-mail, members could correspond with people from different places while planning low-budget journeys or adventures.
In 2000, Veit Kuhne, an AFS volunteer from Dresden, Germany, who developed that organization’s hospitality network three years earlier, founded the Hospitality Club. By 2005, Kuhne’s organization absorbed Hospex and grew rapidly. It still operates today as a peace-building organization of mostly students, and has as its goal to eventually involve 1 million members (it is more than 10 percent the way there) and include members from all countries around the world. The countries with the largest membership in the Hospitality Club include Germany, France, the US, and Poland. Belarus has 3200 participants.
In 1999, Casey Fenton of Boston got the idea of setting up a similar network, and five years later Couchsurfing International went online. It had a small-but-loyal following by the time the service’s computer crashed and lost most of its database in June 2006. When Fenton told everyone that he would be forced to shut Couchsurfing down, he met such strong opposition that he changed his mind and resurrected the site in a month.
Today, “Couchsurfing 2.0”, as the restored site was christened, operates with 10 million members in 200,000 cities around the world. It also competes against a host of similar hospitality exchange websites, including newcomers BeWelcome (founded by former members of Hospitality Club in 2007 – currently it has 80,000 members, 110 of which are in Belarus) Workaway (founded in 2002, offers free stay in return for participation in volunteer labor projects – currently has 14,500 members, with two opportunities to get involved in Belarusian volunteer projects as of May 2015), and Couchsurfing’s biggest rival, Airbnb.
Airbnb was founded by Industrial Design students Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia shortly after the Couchsurfing website began to garner so much publicity in its 2007 relaunch. They saw an opportunity to provide low-cost rented space in private homes during an industrial design conference held in their low-vacancy hometown of San Francisco in 2007. The pair teamed up with Harvard architect graduate Nathan Blecharczyk and founded the site in August 2008. After a couple years of struggle, the trio began to secure large-scale investors and acquired similar hospitality exchange websites in other markets, including Germany’s Accoleo and England’s Crashpadder. By 2012, the service had spread internationally, opening even a Russian office that year.
Airbnb offerings within Belarus included in May 2015 a wide variety of stay options, ranging from a budget 12 USD per night room in Minsk to a ritzy 350 USD a night suburban home outside the national capital. Other cities represented in its listings include the regional centers of Hrodna, Brest, Homiel, and Vitsebsk.
It should be noted that none of the hospitality exchange options offered include tourist visa or registration support, and users of these options are responsible for handling these issues themselves. Further, each of these websites stress that, given the inherent risk involved for both host and guest where both are strangers to each other, a certain level of caution is warranted when using any hospitality exchange. Whether money is exchanged or not, it is additionally recommended to be mindful of cultural differences, and in general just behave like a good guest, one that would be welcomed back should the traveler ever return, whether coming back is in the traveler’s plans or not. After all, visitors using an exchange are actually representing their homelands in what is effectively an informal cultural exchange.
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