A growing number of Russians are choosing neighboring Belarus for their next vacation in a bid to access Western goods and financial services that are no longer available at home due to sanctions imposed on Moscow over the invasion of Ukraine.
Unlike Russia, most foreign retailers and major payment companies maintain a presence in ex-Soviet Belarus, which is often called the “last dictatorship in Europe.”
“Brands like H&M, Bershka and Pull & Bear have left Russia but we [who travel to Belarus] they can dress in them from head to toe,” said Yelena Shitikova, an executive at the Arkhangelsk region travel agency Family Travel, which offers tours to Belarus.
“Everything is working there, there are no sanctions,” he added.
With multiple daily flights and trains between Moscow and Minsk, Belarus has become an increasingly popular destination for Russians looking to buy Western products or open a bank account that issues Visa or MasterCard debit cards that are no longer available in Russia. .
Ruled by close Kremlin ally Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus has been used as a staging area for Russian troops and missile launchers during the invasion of Ukraine. But even though concerns voiced by Kyiv — Lukashenko has denied the Belarusian army has crossed into Ukrainian territory, allowing Minsk to avoid the harshest Western sanctions. –
There has been an increase of over 60% in travel bookings to Belarus, Anna Ovsyanikina, who handles Belarus bookings for the Delfin travel agency, was aforementioned as the Association of Tour Operators in Russia said last month.
The FUN&SUN tourism agency launched four-day shopping tours to the Belarusian capital Minsk at a price of 16,750 rubles ($279) per person in late August.
“Tourists started going to Belarus more often and we also noticed that they go shopping, among other things, so we decided to offer this product,” a FUN&SUN spokesperson told The Moscow Times.
“The demand was very high for the first trip and for the following ones as well.”
Travel agent Shitikova said she fell in love with Belarus after visiting earlier this year.
Upon his return to Russia, he noticed an “unexpectedly high” demand for trips to the country and decided to offer special tours to clients of his agency.
“Everything came together [with Belarus]: no language barrier, the opportunity for a great shopping experience and clean, beautiful views,” he told The Moscow Times.
“There are no problems, the food is excellent and I also think it is a very economical destination.”
More than 1,200 foreign companies have completely withdrawn or limited their operations from the Russian market since the start of the war in Ukraine in February, according to data. compiled by the Yale University School of Management, which makes it much more difficult to obtain many Western products.
Among those companies are the world’s largest fast-fashion and luxury retailers, whose closures have left malls across Russia with rows of empty stores.
FUN&SUN customers traveling to Belarus can satisfy their craving for foreign brands by spending a whole day in Minsk shopping malls, where brands such as ZARA, Massimo Dutti, Calvin Klein and Levis are widely available, according to a shopping tour itinerary. from Belarus of the company seen by The Moscow Times.
The other attraction of vacationing in Belarus for some Russians is the option of opening a local bank account that will issue Visa and Mastercard bank cards.
After international payment companies left the Russian market in protest of the invasion of Ukraine, Russians can no longer make purchases on foreign websites or use their cards abroad.
The number of applications for payment cards made by Russian citizens at Belarusbank, the country’s largest bank, increased by more than 50 percent in the first four months of the war, according to information published by the news portal Office Life.
Tourists on a shopping tour with FUN&SUN can open a bank account in Belarus on the first day of their visit, right after a welcome cocktail at the four-star Minsk Hotel in the heart of the Belarusian capital, according to the official itinerary.
The Visa or Mastercard debit card can be withdrawn two days later.
But some Russians have found it more difficult to open a bank account in Belarus.
“My friends and I were looking to open a bank account, but it seems that we were not the first to come up with this ‘cool’ idea and the banks have introduced restrictions,” said Denis, a 33-year-old product manager from Moscow, who recently visited Belarus. .
Requirements for Belarusian banks include a local phone number and a permanent minimum account balance of at least 30,000 rubles ($500), according to Denis, who declined to give his last name for security reasons.
“We decided not to open the accounts in the end because [Russian payment system] Mir mainly works in Belarus anyway. If we end up going to Turkey on vacation this year, we will only use cash,” he told The Moscow Times.
Belarus is not the only country that attracts Russians looking to combine leisure travel with opening a bank account abroad.
Other popular destinations for so-called “banking tourism” are Armenia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkey.
The first organized “bank” route” titled “For Visa to Uzbekistan” was presented by the VEDI Group agency in March.
But travel agent Shitikova said that easily accessible Belarus has untapped tourism potential even beyond bank cards, Western brands and the Soviet-era sanatorium the country is often associated with by those who grew up under it. Communist regime.
“I don’t want the tourists I work with to associate Belarus only with sanatoriums. It is an extremely beautiful country that I personally want to keep coming back to,” she said.