High holiday season in this scorching summer in Lithuania boasts a hot piece of industry news: core tourism numbers are up, with domestic travel edging to record heights. Ironically, the summer’s headline-grabbing news was the breakdown of Go Planet Travel, a travel organizer. It sparked fierce flare-ups, with some market players urging for immediate extra legislative safeguards to prevent the travel market operators from meeting that kind of bad publicity again in the future. The Baltic Times sat down with Danute Mazeikaite, president of the Lithuanian Tourism Association, to talk about the current heat wave and its effects on the country’s tourism market.
How does the summer look like tourism-wise?
It’s too early yet to speak of it, as August marks a holiday month, so the conclusions need to be done afterwards. But now all are working actively, so the hopes are for a good result.
How are all the travel agencies that you unite under the flag of your association doing this tourism season?
The Lithuanian Tourism Association (LTA) and its members notice the already existing practice that one starts planning a vacation well before its beginning. Certainly, there are some customers who scramble to plan their vacations right before the start – and look for a suitable travel offer. So summer, for travel agencies, marks the peak of their work, both in keeping up communication with the customers, with travel packages already in their pockets, and those who are seeking a good getaway or separate tourism services.
In May, we were observing a certain activation of demand in the market, which resulted in the sellout of holiday packages for the month, so all the offers travel agencies could make were for July and the months thereafter. Since we see the Lithuanian holidaymaker changing, we’re addressing the change by encouraging our members to focus on a more intensive improvement of their qualifications. In that pursuit, the LTA has organized training for the market participants, with emphasis on the service providers’ obligations to the customers. Our striving is to make sure that from the outset of dealing with a client - in choosing travel - both the travel organizer and the travel agency personnel would show high skills and knowledge.
The collapse of travel organizer Go Planet Travel has stirred waves across the market. Who is to blame? How did it happen with quite a few supervisors around?
These are really important questions for the tourism market, and to get answers a thorough investigation has to be carried out, as the individual remarks on it do not give answers and do not create an atmosphere of trust in the market.
But still, how, with the Tourism Department as the main watchdog over the country’s travel sector, did it happen? This is outrageous, you have to agree.
Before seeking an answer, I’d like to rephrase the question a little bit. Why isn’t the good, exemplary experience of successfully operating travel organizers used and followed? Why aren’t their consultations being sought? Even in our association, there’s an abundance of such example-setting travel organizers that have been operating for 15 or 20 years now. Isn’t it an achievement when a Lithuanian travel organizer not only works successfully at home, but also in Latvia and Estonia, where it has expanded the business? Definitely, it is a great example of a good business. I always, with big pride, follow the tourism sector enterprises excelling themselves to new business achievements. In a broader picture, both the public and private sector systems are strong if they are marked with communication, focus, evaluation of developing situations and trends. But if anything is missing in the entirety, then the systems are subject to collapse.
What legislative amendments do you believe are necessary to prevent this from happening in the future?
The Lithuanian Tourism Association had submitted proposals on various issues aimed to pep up the business. Instead of going now into the details, I’d rather prompt everyone to analyze the neighboring countries’ provisions of tourism market regulation, especially as much as their restrictions are concerned.
If there’s no water around, then the green landscape turns into a desert, to say illustratively. Exactly the same parallel goes with business - the more constraints there are, the lesser business expansion is. So to answer your question, I really do not believe that more stringent regulations are needed in the sector, especially with no conclusions available on the regulation practice in other EU member states. But as I said, the Lithuanian tourism market is positive-minded and is ready for a discussion on that matter.
Do you believe Lithuania has already become a player in the global tourism market? Or are we still somewhere in the middle without a clear outcome? What should be done to improve it?
As a separate destination and a single unit, Lithuania definitely is marketable and sellable to the neighboring countries. Along with the other two Baltic countries. This is where I’d like to pay attention: no matter how aggressive a business is, without state-level promotion and support, it’s really hard to get to the top of the Baltic region. Some of our economic experts perhaps could provide you more insight on the subject, as tourism is a branch of economics where growth is impacted by other, sometimes irrelevant branches [of economics]. So in pursuit of leadership, the business entrepreneurs’ observations - some of which sometimes can be unpleasant to the ears - should serve as a prompt in deciding what ought to be changed and improved. The bottom line is this: let’s talk, communicate and strive for a common goal.
This year’s tourism statistics show a larger-scale domestic tourism. What do you make of it?
I don’t think it’s a new kind of thing. We all do love Lithuania and tend to travel across it on weekends or holidays. This year, for example, some schools, I heard, have given their schoolchildren a task to visit a certain number of Lithuanian museums. This is great, as this way we’re encouraging the young generation to see and feel the places of our cultural heritage. Besides, I see here also another benefit - for the state’s budget. I really want to believe that soon there will re-appear the now-disappeared line in the state budget to promote local tourism. Obviously, the EU support for the task - and better figures - is not enough. But speaking of the higher local tourism statistics, I sometimes wonder whether all those Vilnius and Kaunas students juggling in the summer their temp jobs with leisure at the seaside, as well as all those people who tend to go for work to other districts, aren’t included in the statistics? Whatever the answer is, I really would like to encourage everyone to be restless and try to spend every weekend on the road, discovering the new Lithuanian cultural nuggets.
Which Lithuanian regions do you reckon, tourism-wise, are undeservedly overlooked and under-appreciated, and are worth bigger recognition?
I don’t really think that every spot on the map has to attract large tourist crowds, as a location with little resources suitable for tourism won’t create an entrepreneurial environment [for tourism]. But it is perhaps where some other branches of economics can successfully develop. I reckon it to be very important for local businessmen to hear what their visitors expect, or might expect, and start the entrepreneurial activity from there. When it comes to the velocity of local tourism traffic, it also depends on the different travel experience we all have; hence the uneven level of knowing the country and its locations. So before setting out, I’d invite everyone first to get on a local tourism information center Web site and [they’ll] make some nice new discoveries by the end of the trip.
If I’m not mistaken, five Lithuanian municipalities are awarded resort town status. Do you believe it is always deserved? Or is this sometimes the mere outcome of strong local lobbyism?
I see this question as the continuation of the previous question, so let’s go on with the reasoning. If any lobbyism extends the tourism season, why not have it prolonged that way? But if that’s the case, this also means a whole lot bigger responsibility, more commitments to local touristic service providers. The status itself doesn’t exempt anyone from providing the services - and providing them in such a way that the visitors’ expectations are not compromised. The coveted status cannot be just an open window in being prioritized when it comes to allocating state money in a certain category of tourism development. The status - this is the most important - obligates its holder to create and guarantee sustainable use of local tourism resources, also to establish suitable recreational zones. It should go without saying that with the proclamation of a new resort town, the environment and services have to be up to the standards and consumer’s expectations. And this obviously applies both to the local municipality and business that use the status for the location’s marketing and creation of infrastructure and services. That there are not only resort towns, but resort territories, too, is a good thing, because with their different natural resources, the visitors will distribute evenly and surplus in the tourist flow won’t happen.
Some of the resort towns, like Ignalina and Birstonas, have been seeing a rapid tourism boost lately. What’s behind it?
We changed the country’s political life from over 20 years ago beyond recognition, and that affected all the economy, including tourism. With the foreign tourist flow thinning, the high numbers in local rehabilitation establishments rapidly dropping, local residents were not able to fill up the free beds. To make things worse, Western European countries had not heard about Lithuanian resorts. So naturally this, with the poor infrastructure and services around, led to the resorts’ languishing. Only having started intensely improving the infrastructure, Druskininkai, the influential politicians’ represented resort, started rising first. When it comes to Birstonas’ popularity, the ambience it has, as well as the compactness and richness of cultural life, I want to stress, its abundance of recreational zones have been very inviting. Not surprisingly, today we hear that the atmosphere Birstonas has is different from the one in Druskininkai.
Does Lithuania have a share in theluxury tourism market? Do you see demand for that kind of tourism?
It does. Look, we have the successfully operating Kempinsk Hotel Cathedral Square and some other five-star hotels that boast high occupancy. I am pleased to notice that the incoming tourism travel organizers do have those kinds of clients, and their number is rising.
How does Lithuanian tourism look to you in the short-term and long-term?
Speaking of short-term goals, providing services to the remaining high season’s tourists and getting ready for the Christmas period and winter holiday, packages are most important now. Speaking of long-term goals, proper implementation of tourism measures laid out in the 2014-2020 Tourism Expansion Program, as well as concentration of skilled and motivated personnel are key tasks.
Is it possible for an ordinary traveler to say which travel organizer is reliable and which is not? Do you have any tips on how to sort out the wheat from the chaff?
Generally speaking, I do believe that the Lithuanian tourism market is reliable, i.e. travel organizers and travel agencies acts responsibly. I don’t think it’s a good idea to start judging them according to some criterion, because that way a trail of distrust can be created. Personally, I always choose a travel organizer publicly declaring its insurance policies, which guarantee that the commitments it has for the clients are met.
Also, I choose that travel organizer whose offers aren’t too low in comparison with other travel offers in the market. I really would like to invite every traveler to contribute to the formation of what I call “responsible travelling.” It is as important as getting insurance for one’s house or car. The term to me also includes having insurance for a failed trip, a missed connecting flight or lost baggage.
I know you’re on vacation. Can you reveal where it has taken you already?
I had my holidays in Lithuania, got acquainted with the touristic routes suggested by regional recreation parks.
How was it?
Very interesting and even unexpected, I’ve got to admit. It’s been a whole new experience for me.