Polish border no-go zone will stop tourists as well as migrants, locals fear

BIALOWIEZA, Poland (Reuters) - Poland's move to set up a no-go zone to control the number of migrants coming over its borders could also stop thousands of tourists visiting the forested frontier with Belarus, local business owners fear.

Hoteliers and tour operators said they were particularly worried about the impact on the summer season from the zone - which would bar everyone apart from security services from a strip of eastern territory cutting into popular sites.

Parts of the zone cross into Bialowieza forest, potentially stopping visitors entering parts of one of Europe's last ancient woodlands, traditionally a centre of hiking, cycling and nature-watching.

The zone is due to come into force on Thursday. But the alarming talk of security controls is already having an impact, Slawomir Dron, a restaurant owner from Bialowieza, said.

"People cancel their reservations. My friends who run private lodgings here, they already received cancellations. Everyone is asking if it's safe in here."

The government says it is having to act after a rise in confrontations between migrants and authorities on the border that has already led to the death of one soldier.

Poland and other European countries have accused Belarus, a Russian ally, of engineering a migration crisis by flying in people from the Middle East and pushing them to cross into the European Union illegally.

In all, Poland plans to spend 10 billion zlotys ($2.5 billion) on strengthening defences at the border.

Defence Minister Wladyslaw Kosiniak-Kamysz has said local businesses will get a boost from all the army, police and border guards using accommodation.

The presence of security services will also make visitors feel safer, and some businesses may be able to get compensation, he added.

But locals are not convinced.

Tourism took a hit when the crisis on the Belarus border first broke out in 2021 and the previous nationalist government introduced a buffer zone, then stoked people's fears about security further by erecting a 5-metre high metal barrier.

At least the last government only imposed restrictions outside the tourist season, guide Lukasz Synowiecki told Reuters. But this time authorities will be bringing in restrictions just when visitor numbers usually peak.

"I will probably have to go somewhere else to find seasonal work this summer," he said. "And I will keep my fingers crossed this ends one day."

($1 = 4.0261 zlotys)

(Reporting Barbara Erling, Kuba Stezycki and Kacper Pempel; Writing by Alan Charlish, Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk and Andrew Heavens)