Travel to Belarus: 'Europe's last dictatorship' introduces visa-free travel for Australians and 79 other nations

There are many reasons why rational travellers have probably not considered a trip Belarus. Regarded as 'the last dictatorship in Europe', this authoritarian destination is one of the few countries that retains the death penalty, is regularly criticised for human rights violations, and is the only ex-Soviet state not to have disbanded the KGB.

That's not all. According to the World Health Organisation, Belarus is the most alcohol-dependant nation on Earth, while its down-at-heel capital, Minsk, is regularly ranked the least livable city in Europe.

If that isn't enough to deter you, perhaps the laborious process of entering the country will: while the Soviet Union crumbled many moons ago, the process of getting a Belarusian visa still harks back to the days of the Iron Curtain. You have to be really determined to visit this country.  

But not for much longer. In signs that Belarus is coming in from the cold, its Ministry of Foreign Affairs has announced it will be offering visa-free travel for citizens of 80 countries, including Australia and the United Kingdom.

Visas will be waived as of February and will cover a five-day stay in the country, providing you enter via Minsk National Airport (also known as Minsk-2). See mfa.gov.by/en/visa/visafreetravel

​See also: What it's really like to travel in North Korea

According to official figures, there were some 137,400 visits to Belarus by foreign nationals in 2014. The authorities hope that relaxing visa rules will boost international arrivals by 20 per cent, which equates to just over 27,000 tourists.

Belarus began its visa waiver programme last year when it announced that Israeli and Turkish nationals would not need them to travel to the country.

"Since the launch of visa-free travel, the number of Israeli nationals coming to Belarus has doubled, and the number of visits from Turkey has risen 1.5 times," Vitaly Gritsevich, of the Belarusian Sport and Tourism Ministry, told the Belarusian Telegraph Agency.

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Upon arrival in Minsk, Australian and British tourists may soon hear the familiar sound of English-language announcements on the city's subway; the authorities are considering introducing them to help tourists navigate the city, which was obliterated during the Second World War and rebuilt in the austere Soviet style.

See also: World's most powerful passports

Belarus is not the only dictatorship looking to boost tourism. Despite being the world's most secretive nation, North Korea recently set out its ambitions to welcome two million tourists per year by 2020. More surprising still, in 2016 the Syrian Ministry of Tourism released a promotional video marketing holidays to the war-torn country.

Belarus and North Korea have similar motivations for turning to tourism: over the years the economies in both countries have relied heavily on trade with Russia, but as the Russian economy nosedives its dependants have been forced to look further afield for foreign investment. Tourism - one of the world's largest industries - seems an obvious place to turn.

See Smartraveller for up-to-date travel advice to Belarus.

The Telegraph, London 

See also: Visa rules for Australians in Europe and Britain

See also: The world's best cities with the worst reputations

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