TRAVEL - The ins and outs of Baltic travel agencies

  • 2008-04-03
  • By Talis Saule Archdeacon

WOODLAND WANDERERS: Lauku Celotajs Director Asnate Ziemele started up the company to cater to people who prefer to travel through the countryside while visiting the Baltics. She said it gives travelers a better feel for what the countries are really like.

Tourism in one of the first things to suffer in a recession. So maybe it's a good sign that things are not so bad and that industry experts say they are still doing good business. Balts are so determined to get abroad that they will go to any lengths, even if it means making their own sandwiches, to do so. This week,  Industry Insider looks into the travel agency business and the ever-changing trends of Baltic comers and goers.

RIGA - Baltic travel agencies face a unique set of challenges, mainly stemming from the fact that the three countries are small and relatively unknown to most travelers from Western countries.

There are two basic types of customers that travel agencies deal with 's incoming and outgoing. When it comes to outgoing business, catering to travelers who are leaving the Baltics to tour another country, the basic problem lies in the size of the market. There simply aren't very many people in each country who have enough money to travel the world.

Roman Sokin, managing director of the Estonia-based Baltic Breaks travel agency, said that the small size of the market means it may soon reach saturation. It is hard to predict when that will happen, however, and what the consequences will be for the industry.

"As the market is not so big in the three countries, of course there will be a moment of saturation. No one knows what will happen after that," Sokin told The Baltic Times.

He said the market has already started to slow 's there has not been any significant growth for some time. This does not mean, however, that the industry has become stagnant. The stable market has resulted in some intense competition among travel agents.

"Competition has definitely been getting stronger 's the market, however, has stayed about the same," he said.

Baltic Breaks is a relatively small but quickly growing company which focuses on high end, high quality tours such as spa vacations or golf holidays.

Algirdas Jocycs, manager of the more general interest tour operator Avia Ekspress, disagreed with Sokin's assesment. Jocycs said that there was still plenty of room for the market to grow as the standard of living continues to rise in the Baltics.

"Last year, there was an increase approximately 20 percent in both parts [incoming and outgoing]. I hope it will continue and that things will be better than last year. In general, as the life level increases it is better 's with more salary people here have the possibility to travel more. Six or seven years ago all travel packages were very cheap, but people were not traveling as much, now it is not so cheap but people can still buy and travel more and more," Jocycs told The Baltic Times.

He agreed with Sokin on one point 's competition in the industry is fierce and becoming tougher every year. Jocycs said there were six travel agents on the same street as Avia Ekspress' main office. He said the company was now facing some of the toughest competition in its entire 11 year history.

When it comes to incoming business, catering to travelers who come to the Baltics from abroad, the biggest challenge stems from a simple lack of information about the countries. The average Western European citizen doesn't know much about any of the Baltic states beyond where they lie on a map and the fact that they are in the European Union.

Though Baltic governments have recently launched campaigns aimed at spreading positive images about the countries to promote tourism and investment 's the Lithuanian government has even considered renaming the country 's the campaigns have so far been met with limited success.

Most Western Europeans tend to think of the Baltic states as the same country, with the same culture and the same appeal for tourists.

"Before I came [to Latvia], I thought that the three Baltic states were basically three versions of the same country," said Guillaume, a French student who recently returned home after an extended stay in the Baltics.
In order to address these challenges, most travel agencies work in all three Baltic states and tend to focus more on incoming travelers. Though some only have offices in one or two of the countries, nearly all have at least a regional tour package. Most companies also tend to focus on specific interest holidays, targeting travelers who have a well defined idea of what they want out of their trip.

"The market for incoming international in the country as such is a specific interest [group] 's it is not for sun holidays and it is not a well known country.  From my perspective, people coming to the Baltics 's I say that because I do not think international [travelers] consider the differences of the countries very much 's have a specific interest. Maybe they want nature vacations, for example," Asnate Ziemele, president of the Latvia-based Lauku Celotajs told TBT.

Lauku Celotajs specializes in trips outside of the main cities, trips through the Baltic countryside. Ziemele said this appeals to many people because it gives travelers a chance to see what life in the country is really like.
"Any [Baltic] city which is not the capital city, they are part of the countryside 's they are just bigger towns when considered on a world scale. When I travel around, I also like the small cities more than the capitals 's I get a feel for the country much more than in the cities," she said.

Though small town bed and breakfast style hotels generally get more business from domestic travelers, Lauku Celotajs focuses on drawing in international visitors which the small hotels would generally not see. Recently, the travel agency has also found a market in local Balts who want to get out and see the countryside in the other Baltic states.

The future for Baltic travel agents seems uncertain. While the market is small and the destination often isn't the first to come to travelers minds, industry growth has remained relatively constant.  No matter what the future may hold, however, Baltic travel agencies have proven resilient and will continue to promote the countries' many charms.