The recently released 2,000 version of www.travel.lt boasts 1,875 pages and over 1,600 photos, maps and pictures. The site covers hotels, restaurants, travel agencies and museums for the whole of Lithuania, and includes many smaller cities which often get overlooked in travel brochures and guidebooks.
Although 40,000 litas came from Lithuania's export development agency, hotels and restaurants kicked in the rest of the funds through subscription fees to eventually make the Web site a self supporting venture.
Juozas Narusis, chairman of the Lithuanian tourism fund, sees a bright future for his project.
"It's a huge saving as we don't have to print as many voluminous brochures and send them by mail. Every civilized country in the world has a site like this. Our goal is to make sure that the information we provide is as accurate as can be and to continue gathering more of it," said Narusis. As far as he knows, no equivalent Web site exists in Latvia and Estonia. He's proud that Lithuania got out of the gates first but is certain the other Baltics are not far behind.
Five workers from the tourism fund compiled all the facts and figures. Loris Ltd., a fledgeling Lithuanian software company, provided the technical and graphic design know-how. One of the site's weaknesses stems from the material coming from a wide variety of sources, meaning the English language quality does vary. Examples: 'Bed and breakfasts' are titled 'country holidays' and instead of 'setting', the more awkward 'environment' is used. Also, a tedious 'elevator music' track plays repeatedly as one surfs - a good reason to turn off the sound temporarily. Something more reflective of Lithuanian music would be in order.
The developers are also aware that the site can be slow at times, depending on the Web surfer's connection speed and geographic location, but site developers will be working intensively to fix this in the next weeks in anticipation of increased traffic.
Traffic on the site is on the increase.
"Right now we're getting 500 hits a week" said Ilja Laurs of Loris Ltd., one of the brains on the design team."Although most of our visitors are from Europe, North America and Lithuania itself, we're starting to see people from places like Hong Kong and Israel look at our pages. As the summer tourist season approaches we expect to see 2,500 hits a week."
If one can overlook the minor problems and is patient enough, it is worth a bookmark in the Web browser. Newly added listings can be viewed by clicking the News link at the top of the page. Not only does this site contain a comprehensive searchable database of information on tourism, but it is accurate, provides pricing and in many cases allows one to make bookings by e-mail. There's also a virtual store where one can order maps and brochures as well as a CD-ROM disc that mirrors the site itself ($10).
Of the 1,000 discs pressed, half have sold and a new version will be released in May.
The Loris team also won a recent competition funded by the Open Society Fund (www.osf.lt) to host and design four virtual museum exhibits: the Kernave historical site, the Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis art museum, the Lithuanian maritime museum and the genocide museum. Links to these museums will be available on www.travel.lt. A virtual tour of the Alytus Museum is already up and running and provides a preview of the other museum Web sites.
Laurs also demonstrated a prototype vector based map, several of which will appear in forthcoming weeks for different cities. In contrast to the present static maps, these allow the user to zoom in on specific streets, measure distances in meters and view different layers, e.g. hotels or restaurants.
"Overall, now that the basic data and infrastructure are up, we can expand and add more animation and interactivity and in general make it more dynamic rather than static, as it is now," said Laurs.
The site has been nominated as one of the eight best new tourism promotion projects in Lithuania. The winner will be announced on Feb. 16.