"Russians started coming in droves to Belarus in August," a hospitality entrepreneur told Euroradio on condition of anonymity. Iryna (name changed) says that in late spring, her apartments stood empty, but 95% of accommodations were booked by the end of summer.
Some of the guests are ordinary tourists, people "who are hungry for impressions after two years of quarantine". Another part is those for whom Belarus is a transit point on the way to Europe. But our interviewee, when checking in, asks her guests not only about "the purpose of their visit" but also about their attitude to the war.
"Of the twenty people, only one said he supported the "special operation." Of those, one said, "it was not so clear-cut." We're the ones who are told that all Russians are for the war, but the results of my personal survey show otherwise," Iryna says.
"And then they started crying right in the hallway"
Over the years of working in the hospitality industry, Iryna had regular clients. Many of them wrote to her in the early days of the war: this is a tragedy.
Iryna asks new guests questions carefully: she doesn't ask them head-on "about the special operation" but advises guests to avoid military symbols, for example. Hearing such a recommendation, one of the tourists was indignant: "Symbols of a special operation? Do I look like a madman?"
"And when I talked about the war with two women in their sixties, they started crying right in the hallway. Can you imagine? They just started crying. They were as awake as we were during the first nights of the war. They were glued to the screen and the news. They told me: We didn't choose this. We didn't want this war!"
Some Russians go "in transit" to visit relatives who live in Europe. For example, a not-so-old married couple traveled through Minsk to Germany this summer to visit their daughter.
"When we talked about the war, their faces simply went black. I wished them to find a piece of their paradise somewhere in the world. And these people of pre-retirement age replied that their paradise was on their land plot, outside the wicket of their house, with their family. What should they do now? Emigrate after their daughter? Stay in Russia? Where is their paradise? They feel like lost children".
Of Iryna's two dozen August guests, only one young girl openly supported the war.
"She was a real fascist. Young, but stupid. Maybe she wasn't even such a bad person. Just very shallow. Her mother is Ukrainian, and she herself was born in Ukraine. But she speaks in propaganda clichés. She resents the fact that Russia is called the aggressor. I explained to her that Russia is, in fact, the aggressor.
In the end, I suggested that we finish talking about the war. Otherwise, we'd have to say goodbye. I did check this girl in, and I took her money, but then I thought for a long time that I should have refused to let her stay.
"People can be discriminated against for a Russian passport"
This spring, Iryna was surprised by the policy of Airbnb, which previously had a non-discriminatory approach, but now has actually rejected customers who live in Russia. Our interviewee believes that Airbnb violates its own rules through its policy against Russians and Belarusians.
In March, the service shut down its operations in Russia and Belarus: the search engine simply stopped showing results for these countries. And then Airbnb completely banned those in Russia from booking accommodation abroad. Iryna believes that in this way, the service violated its main principle, to which it was committed for many years -- the policy of non-discrimination.
"This principle was present in every single line of the Airbnb policy. The most important thing was non-discrimination regarding nationality, gender, and age. But now it turns out that people are willing to discriminate against others over a Russian passport".
Once Iryna had to apologize to Airbnb specifically for discrimination. The platform thought that she had responded incorrectly to a guest who had given a low rating for her apartment. Iryna advised the client next time not to choose an economy class apartment or "just sit at your place in Tver." Airbnb blocked her account. Iryna had to apologize for both to her guest and to the platform.
"All the Belarusians working in the hospitality field with Airbnb are used to European communication standards. But now it turns out that the same service is ready to discriminate against the population of an entire country.
Because of the demand not to provide all Russians and Belarusians with visas, I am now reconsidering the attitude of Europe and Ukraine itself toward us and them. I got into several Facebook arguments and tried to explain that neither the Belarusians nor the Russians could stop the war with their bare hands. It's a shame that this is being demanded of us by people who themselves have a history of dictatorship.
"We won't see discounts at Zara for a long time"
Irina says we won't see discounts at Zara anytime soon: tourists buy everything without discounts. But she adds that the interest of the Russians in shopping and the Belarusian banks where they can open the cards of international payment systems is exaggerated.
"They all have MIR cards that work in Belarus and are used to them. Sometimes this "MIR" thing doesn't work in Minsk, though. One of my clients rented an electric scooter and couldn't finish the ride because the service rejected payment with his MIR card. I had to link my card so he could return the scooter".
In general, though, cards and shopping are not their main goal. Yes, Russians go shopping at Dana Mall. Yes, they go to McDonald's. But mostly, they just want to go on vacation to another country, and Belarus is one of the few available.
"Who comes here? The same families with children who came before. Only before they used to go for a walk in Minsk, but now they want to go for a walk in Minsk and to get some cards and things at the same time," another entrepreneur engaged in renting apartments told Euroradio.
There are shopping tours for those who want to go shopping in Belarus. But such tourists usually stay in hotels rather than rent private apartments. Places in shopping tours are usually sold out, as one of the tour operators told us.
Shop tours in Belarus are marked as "current season's novelty." Tourists are offered four-star hotel accommodation, welcome cocktails and "all your favorite brands" - from H & M and Zara to Michael Kors and Karl Lagerfeld. The tour is short - only four days.
We talked to agent Natalia, who offers such tours to Russians.
"I've been working in tourism for 18 years, and for the last 10 years, I sent adults and children to Belarus for treatment every year. I have been to your wonderful country four times myself. Before, all the tours were divided into two main areas - treatment in spa centers and sightseeing tours.
But now, when many chain clothing brands leave the Russian market, the so-called shopping tours have become the third direction. In fact, it's the same sightseeing tour that includes accommodation in Minsk, a tour around Minsk and free time for shopping.
The group usually consists of 10 to 40 people. Natalia says that there are always those who want to go on such a tour. It is interesting that the Russians are invited not only to Minsk. We found an ad that offered a trip to Vitsebsk, and on request comes an excursion to the house-museum of Marc Chagall and shopping at the Pyramid Mall.
"We want to walk around Moscow in embroidered shirts"
Iryna, of course, also asks her guests about their impressions of Minsk. She asks about shopping in "Dana Mall," too. Well, did you go to Zara?
Among her guests were two young girls who actually went shopping in Belarus. But they didn't go to Zara, but to look for embroidered shirts!
"I asked them: girls, what do you need them for? They answered: we want to wear them at home, in Moscow and Kaliningrad".