KLAIPEDA - Klaipeda's annual Festival of the Sea this year attracted an ocean of visitors, yet the most striking trend among the streams of locals filing past the concerts, street performances and snack booths was the growing presence of tourists.
The city's burgeoning tourist trade was given a tremendous boost last year with the completion of Klaipeda Port's cruise ship terminal, a facility where liners touring the Baltic Sea can dock and unload boatfuls of tourists eager to explore the city's cobblestone streets. Now operating in its second season, the terminal is finally putting Klaipeda on the nautical map for ships that, until now, had bypassed Lithuania entirely.
Prior to the terminal's opening, the small trickle of cruise ships making their way to Lithuania's fourth largest city were forced to dock in an industrial area generally unsuitable for passenger traffic.
"The spot where the ships docked before was technically fine, but it was right next to a stevedoring area, which some considered unsafe. After that, the passengers got off the boat and were in an industrial port surrounding far away from the Old Town," explains Migle Holliday, director of Meja Travel, an agency that specializes in booking tour ships through Klaipeda.
"There's no doubt that our business is better. We can now offer Klaipeda - with a good conscience - as a destination for cruise ships, knowing that our facility is nothing to be embarrassed about," she says.
Proof of the cruise-ship terminal's success can be found in the rising number of boats now making their way to Klaipeda. Up until the terminal's opening in 2003 an average of only 20 boats docked in Klaipeda per year; this summer there are already bookings for 49 ships.
During the Festival of the Sea, two ships emptied their roughly 250 passengers each into the city, adding a solid international tourist contingent to the event.
For the city as well as the port, the terminal's construction has proven to be a win-win project. While tour operators and local businesses report a marked increase in business, the port authority believes it has opened up a market that went previously untapped.
"We expect to recuperate the initial investment in eight to 10 years," said Arvydas Butkus, general director of Klaipedos Laivu Remontas (Klaipeda Ship Repair), the state-owned company that administers the terminal.
Klaipedos Laivu Remontas receives booking fees for ships that dock at the terminal, where they usually stay for up to 12 hours while tourists wander around town.
What's more, the facility itself is being considered a work in progress that will eventually receive further upgrades. Indeed, a visitor's first glimpse of Klaipeda after stepping off the cruse ship is an unflattering one of neglected port structures and a congested parking lot. From there, arriving passengers have to cross a busy thoroughfare that separates the terminal from the city proper.
Cognizant of the aesthetic problem, Klaipedos Laivu Remontas has promised that a privatization effort this year will bring needed investment to passenger terminal operations.
"One of the requirements of the private tender is an investment of 30 million litas (8.7 million euros) in all our facilities over five years. Part of this investment we expect to be used for beautifying the area around the terminal and adding passenger facilities, such as a store," says Butkus.
Holliday says a few relatively minor adjustments to the terminal are needed before work is begun on larger investment projects.
"There are no signs directing passengers to the city once they get off the ship. You have to walk about 500 meters before you even find a sign, so many of the passengers feel unsafe and get confused. Small things like this can go a long way," she admits.
Klaipeda's cruise-ship terminal operates from May until August and receives vessels operated by German, British, and American cruise ship operators.