PALANGA - Palanga's well-worn tourist paths are getting a face-lift this season, as the resort town bids to capture ever more regional tourists looking for boisterous seaside fun.
While Palanga's well-established status as Lithuania's summertime vacation capital has come under little competition in recent years, civic leaders have been eager to consolidate the town's tourism draw under one concept. As a result, Palanga has embarked on a number of projects that will help promote it as a destination for vacationers searching for noise and action as opposed to quieter holiday options.
Over the June 13-14 weekend, Palanga unveiled the largest single public tourist infrastructure project undertaken for decades with the opening of a remodeled stretch of Basanaviciaus Street.
Equipped with new paving, sidewalks and lighting, the improved patch of Basanaviciaus-the traditional hub of throbbing tourist traffic-crowns the street's famous approach leading to the beach. The remodeling project represents an investment of over 12 million litas (3.5 million euros) from national, as well as local, government sources.
A spiffy, new Basanaviciaus is an important step in turning up the volume of Palanga's touristic vibe.
According to Deputy Mayor Salvijus Jodka, Palanga distinguishes itself from other Baltic vacation spots with its emphasis on a party atmosphere.
"We are also involved in sanatorium activities, but we are mostly promoting Palanga as a place for active holidays," Jodka said.
Believing they have found an otherwise unfilled niche in the Baltic tourist industry, Palanga officials report that their strategy is pulling in bigger groups of visitors from neighboring countries.
"In the past few years we've seen an increase in visits from Latvia. When we ask the Latvians why they come here, they say that their own resort town, Jurmala, has become a place just for the rich to have homes. In their words, there's no possibility to have a Palanga-style holiday in Latvia," Jodka said.
Looking further afield, Palanga has been pushing hard to renew the tradition of Russian holidaymakers coming to the Lithuanian seaside resort.
Decades ago, Palanga was one of the main hotspots on the Soviet Union's tourist map. But when the borders opened, Russians with means to travel went in droves to previously off-limits destinations - Spain, Turkey, Greece, Cyprus. Many, however, are now choosing to travel closer to home.
"They're coming back now," said Alla Valuziene, director of the Palanga tourist information center. "I think Palanga holds a certain special kind of charm for Russians. Perhaps it's nostalgia, or maybe it's something else. But of all the destinations in the Baltic states, they like Palanga for its noise."
According to Jodka, the Russian honeymoon with hot and exotic locales is over, ushering in a rebirth of enthusiasm for places like Palanga.
"I've talked to Russians who have been to Turkey, Spain and places like that. In all honesty, they say it's too hot there for them, and they want to be where there's weather they're more used to," he said.
Yet while prospects of pulling in more tourists from nearby places like Belarus and Kaliningrad continue to increase due to convenient overland infrastructure, tourism organizers in Palanga bemoan the lack of travel options for potential visitors from larger markets such as Moscow and St. Petersburg.
"We're hoping in a few years for direct flights from Palanga Airport to Moscow. For right now, there's a direct train to Klaipeda from Moscow, but that's about it," Valuziene said.
While Palanga continues to promote itself in the region, plans are underway to increase its tourist base through city improvements as well.
Projects that would be financed from a variety of sources, including EU structural funds, may soon result in the opening of a major sports complex, a new sanatorium and conference facilities.
"We've just finished our 10-year strategic plan, and we hope to bring most of these projects to reality," Jodka said.