VILNIUS - Polish tour groups are the most common but least profitable religious tourists that come to Lithuania, tourism experts say. Most come for the religious landmarks that pepper the Lithuanian countryside.
Vilnius has many of the most beautiful churches in the Baltic region. Over 20 are maintained in the city, and many more are still standing in the rest of the country. "Religious tourism is the most developed tourism in Lithuania," said Dr. Rima Jakyte, head of the Information, Analysis and Control Division of the Lithuanian State Department of Tourism.
Large groups of Poles are Lithuania's most common religious tourists. It is almost impossible to walk through the Gates of Dawn on a summer day without encountering a 50-strong group of Poles listening to a tour guide explain the significance of the gates and the church above.
Gintare Antanelyte, a sales manager at the tour company Liturimex, offered an explanation for the phenomenon. She says Poles and Lithuanians have a lot in common. "They are our closest neighbors. Some have neighbors or relatives here. Also, they owned Vilnius in the past," she said, referring to the commonwealth between the two countries.
Jakyte agrees that these historical ties will keep the number of Polish people visiting Lithuania high. "The main market is Polish people, because we have the same religion and the same history," she said.
They are, however, the least profitable clients for the tourism companies. "Polish people usually come with their own buses and tours. They have all their own contacts," Antanelyte said. "It's not good business because they usually don't use expensive services. They stay in two star hotels and don't buy anything, so there is no money in it," she added.
Adding to the tourism industry's headaches is the fact that other types of religious tourists have just stopped coming. "We used to have lots of Lithuanian-American tourists coming about ten years ago, but now they don't come anymore," said Rasa Levickaite, project manager at Baltic Tours Vilnius.
Levickaite said that the time for Americans coming to Vilnius for sacral tourism has passed and she doesn't ever see a revival happening. "I don't know why they aren't coming 's perhaps the old ones just died. Times have changed," she said.
Despite a decline in the number of different sacral tourists who come to Lithuania, the government is investing in a religious-tourism route that starts at the Polish-Lithuanian border, snakes around the south of the country, goes through Vilnius and zig-zags its way to the north via the Hill of Crosses. The government doesn't expect the route to be profitable but is investing under a cultural guise with European Union funds. Although the route won't make money, Jakyte said she expects it to be popular nonetheless.
Levickaite explained that most of her clients are Japanese and American. They are primarily interested in the culture and secondly in the religious aspects of the nation. But despite government claims that the religious tourism sector is well developed, religious tourists constantly ask for more developed services. "A lot of Japanese and American tourists love going to the Hill of Crosses. They always ask us why there isn't a mass held there," Levickaite said.