Tourists began to cancel reservations in Podlasie after the buffer zone was announced. Entrepreneurs are waiting for specifics

Tourists began to cancel reservations in Podlasie after the buffer zone was announced.  Entrepreneurs are waiting for specifics

Tourists started canceling their reservations right after the conference during which Donald Tusk announced the creation of a buffer zone along the border. Our region is based on tourism, there are no large establishments here. It is not true that the army can replace commercial guests for hoteliers. The army will not use the bicycle rental or camping site, says Ewelina Grygatowicz-Szumowska from an organization associating entrepreneurs from abroad. They are all waiting for announcements of compensation for lost income. This is even more severe because the restrictions come into force at the beginning of the summer season.

At the end of May, when attacks on the Border Guard and the army patrolling the fence on the Polish-Belarusian border intensified, Prime Minister Donald Tusk announced that within a few days a buffer zone with a width of approximately 200 meters from the border line would be created. A draft regulation on this matter was published very quickly – however, the short act did not provide for a buffer zone, but introduced a temporary ban on staying in a specific area in the border zone near the border with Belarus. Restrictions were announced in 26 places in the Hajnówka district. The ban would apply from June 4 for 90 days.

At the border, they remember the bans from 2021

Entrepreneurs operating in the vicinity of the planned restrictions are in a state of fear because they expect a repeat of autumn 2021, when similar restrictions were introduced and they practically lost customers overnight. Tourism and gastronomy were the first to suffer, and there was no shortage of agritourism facilities and camping sites in forest areas. Owners of facilities in towns not covered by the bans also recorded losses, because some tourists did not want to go to a region where they could not move freely.

Other industries also suffered: customers from neighboring towns could not come to mechanical workshops, hairdressers or shops “in the zone”, so local entrepreneurs could only freely serve their neighbors. Although the government introduced a compensation program for losses, the method of calculating them was strongly criticized by many entrepreneurs. They also complained about the high bureaucracy involved in submitting applications – and the forms themselves were different in the Lublin and Podlaskie voivodeships. There was a belief that officials in the Podlasie region were more rigorous in assessing applications, which caused concern, if only because the ban on unregistered persons covered more municipalities in Podlasie than in the Lublin region.

A buffer zone along the border is a matter of time

This time the “judgment” was postponed – politicians explained this, among other things, by the need to discuss the matter with local residents.

The thing is that the local community does not feel heard. They first felt ignored three years ago, when they were offered compensation based on an unfavorable mechanism. For the second time, at the end of May, Donald Tusk spoke in Dubicze Cerkiewne, where the day before, Polish soldier Mateusz Sitka was stabbed and died as a result of his wounds. It was during this speech that Tusk announced the buffer zone. He addressed the military personnel present, although local residents also appeared near the stage and, after it was announced that the Prime Minister would not answer questions from the audience, they shouted questions at his back about what this situation meant for them.

On June 10, Donald Tusk announced that at the away government meeting in Białystok, the government adopted a resolution “the practical consequence of which is the regulation of the Ministry of Interior and Administration on the creation of a buffer zone at the border with Belarus.”

– The idea is to make it more difficult to smuggle illegal migrants across the Polish-Belarusian border and to build better conditions for the service, both for the Border Guard, the military and the police – said the head of government.

He added that the government is aware of the negative consequences of creating the zone for residents. He emphasized that the government would look for ways to help residents. “This process has already started,” he assured. – We will use the means available to us to help the inhabitants of this land – he added after the press conference.

Buffer zone from June 13

The buffer zone will come into force from Thursday on a section of 60.67 km. This is an area within the territorial scope of the Border Guard Posts in Narewka, Białowieża, Dubicze Cerkiewne and Czeremcha. Over a distance of approximately 44 km, the buffer zone will be approximately 200 meters wide. This is much less than the first announcements.

Pursuant to the regulation of the Minister of Interior and Administration, the temporary ban on staying in a specific area will apply for 90 days from the date of entry into force. This means that the buffer zone will remain in force until September 11, 2024.

Politicians from Warsaw have not yet found time to meet with the residents and entrepreneurs from Podlasie who will be affected by the movement ban and the buffer zone. On Tuesday, June 4, Jacek Brzozowski, the Voivode of Podlasie, invited residents to such a meeting in Białystok.

Tourists are afraid of politicians’ announcements

Ewelina Grygatowicz-Szumowska from the Alliance of Polish Entrepreneurs “United East”, which brings together entrepreneurs from the areas along the border with Belarus, reports that the atmosphere was tense. Business in this part of Poland is based on tourism, and tourists want to have peace of mind and feel safe while on vacation. The last few quarters were wasted for the sector: although tourists could freely move around all border counties, the awareness of the existence of a restricted zone for several months captured their imagination and there was no question of numerous arrivals.

– The first tourists started canceling their reservations almost immediately after the conference at which Donald Tusk announced the creation of the zone. The first announcements indicated that the zone would cross the Białowieża National Park and exclude some trails. This is enough to discourage tourists who want to actively spend time in the forest. One of the entrepreneurs present at the meeting with the voivode compared it to the idea of ​​closing mountain trails in the Tatra Mountains in case of danger and leaving only Zakopane and the thermal baths in Białka open. So who would go there then? – Ewelina Grygatowicz-Szumowska asks rhetorically.

Army instead of tourists

Minister of National Defense Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz argued several times that hoteliers would not lose money because the facilities – even the entire facility – would be rented by the army. Soldiers need somewhere to sleep and eat, so they will replace commercial customers. My interlocutor shakes her head at this.

– How to put it delicately… The military are not necessarily customers that hoteliers would like to host. The owners of facilities who rented facilities to the army complained that when groups of soldiers returned after duty with muddy shoes, the carpets in the facility needed to be replaced after a dozen or so days, he recalls.

Rates are also an issue. The military knew well that at the turn of 2021 and 2022, hoteliers in many towns could not accept commercial guests, so they imposed their own prices, much lower than those specified in the price list. I ask whether hoteliers felt that their forced situation was taken advantage of. Ewelina Grygatowicz-Szumowska admits that this is what it looked like.

And the military are not clients of campsites, field guides, and bicycle or other equipment rental companies, so it cannot be said that they will compensate all entrepreneurs for their losses.

What do entrepreneurs from abroad want?

What do entrepreneurs associated in the Agreement demand? – They want compensation to cover at least 65%. actual losses and lost profits. The mechanism used in 2021 in the Act of September 29, 2021 on compensation in connection with the introduction of a state of emergency in part of the Podlaskie Voivodeship and part of the Lublin Voivodeship in 2021 was a form of compromise. We are fighting to maintain jobs, so it would be worth considering exempting every insured person from paying social security contributions, which would also be a beneficial form of help, explains Grygatowicz-Szumowska.

Moreover, in 2021, the same maximum aid is planned for large and small entrepreneurs. Large hotels in Białowieża, which have higher costs than, for example, a camping site, used up their funds much faster and had to resort to savings.

– We believe that compensation should be received not only by entrepreneurs from border areas, but also from other poviats – as long as their activities are related to areas near the border. There is an entrepreneur in Białystok who prepared tax-free packages for Belarusians. Since the border crossing in Bobrowniki was closed, its turnover has dropped by 70%. and recently he has been adding to the business. He entered into an agreement and I am looking for help, says Grygatowicz-Szumowska.

Entrepreneurs from border areas can count on the support of the Ombudsman for Small and Medium-sized Entrepreneurs. The announcement stated that “Adam Abramowicz appealed to Prime Minister Donald Tusk to provide local entrepreneurs with appropriate compensation.” However, it was not written what exactly the Ombudsman proposed. The announcement only wrote that “such compensations were granted by the previous government in 2021-2022, which allowed many companies to survive the difficult period of restrictions”, and from the conversation with the president of the Association of Polish Entrepreneurs “United East”, we know that entrepreneurs do not want compensation in the form of three years ago.

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