Sarunas Vaitkus, the recently elected 35-year-old Palanga mayor, has already received much praise from Palanga dwellers for his innovative approach, exuberance, matter-of-fact daily dealings in embodying his vision of the resort of Palanga as one of the best recreational, sport and wellness resorts not only in the Baltics, but also in Europe and maybe beyond. The Baltic Times sat down with Sarunas Vaitkus for this interview.
Being the youngest Palanga mayor, you have already made everyone speak highly about your exuberance and devotion for the cause of the resort town. Can you share your feelings about Palanga with everyone?
I am convinced that every man loves his Motherland, regardless of where fate brings him or her to. My love of Palanga derives from my strong roots in the town, as I was born and graduated high school here. My ancestors have lived here, as well as my siblings now dwell here, since Palanga is a nice place to live. I feel I am blessed to have been given the right to make the town nicer and better. Obviously, it is a huge responsibility to live up to the trust as mayor. If local people and politicians support my visions, I will do whatever it takes to make Palanga a role-model resort in the region.
Though the ruling Motherland-Christian Democrat Party has recently lost a good deal of council seats in the municipal election, your led branch of the party has won the most seats in Palanga, catapulting you to the mayorship. How do you explain the success?
The secret is very simple: local people have shown their trust to our program and our candidates, who have done a lot for the sake of the local community. Throughout the previous tenures of my work at the local Municipality’s Council, residents have seen me as someone who is ready to carry out changes for the better, not only in the life of the town, but in theirs also. I am proud to have gathered over 1,200 votes, one-sixth of the total turnout, in the election. It obligates me, and I am ready to justify the trust.
When recently opening the renovated Palanga Bridge, one of the main hallmarks of the resort town, you said jubilantly, “Palanga loves the world, and the world loves Palanga.” If honestly, was it not sort of an exaggeration? Do the dynamics of the resort’s investments, development and tourist flow support the words?
I can undoubtedly claim that Palanga resort is rapidly increasing every year, seeing larger numbers in tourist visits, investments and new projects. The country was still crisis-affected last year; however, Palanga saw a considerable increase in tourist flows from all over the world. If I was to look at the geography of our visitors, Russians, particularly, Muscovites, Belarusians take up a significant majority of the visitors, and they are followed by Norwegians, Germans, as well as other Baltic visitors. Interestingly, Latvians, who have their own famed Jurmala resort, do frequent Palanga extensively. Latvians come over here for one reason: Palanga offers generally cheaper prices for great quality services. Thus, Latvians do acknowledge our hospitality, high development of hotel and recreational service industry, as well as exclusive food quality and service. In addition, there is no language barrier in Palanga, as everyone, including young people, have a good command of English and Russian. Particularly, our guests from Russia find that pleasant. I have worked in the tourism industry for 15 years; therefore, I stand by my words: the visitors who come here speak highly of Palanga. I do not see it otherwise, as we have the Baltic Sea, the dunes, the powdery sand and the untouched nature. That is what people appreciate most about Palanga. While we sustain nature’s natural treasures, we will not have any competitors in years to come.
I remember, a few years ago, the then-Jurmala mayor, who, by the way, was Lithuanian, came to Palanga to seek first-hand know-how in the running of Palanga. It shows the competitors respect and learn from Palanga.
Definitely. It shows, no bragging, Palanga may have been a step ahead of its Latvian rival.
On the regional level, however, you should admit that both Latvian Jurmala and our Druskininkai remain Palanga’s arch rivals. What are the advantages of Palanga? Where can we edge out the two?
I find any comparison of Druskininkai and Palanga unparalleled for one simple reason: Druskininkai will never have the sea, which we enjoy. Even if we had nothing to show, people would probably flow here in the hopes of taking a look at the sea – Mother nature’s natural treasures attract people here. Speaking of our uniqueness, I want to refer to the rich Russians, who having traveled all over the world, and being the most seasoned tourists you can imagine, keep returning in large numbers to Palanga – not only because of the vacation preference by their Soviet-era reminiscing parents or grandparents, but because of the unique natural treasures. They appreciate our splendid dunes, the fascinating Botanic Park, the pine-trees, the hospitality, as well as the rest. My pursuit is to sustain Palanga resort this way – as a resort of unique nature.
However, I can honestly admit that Palanga, in comparison with Druskininkai, ought to have more developed infrastructure; particularly, when it comes to building of recreational, entertainment and sports objects. I am determined to bridge the gaps.
Is Palanga capable of assuming the tasks in terms of financing and political will? What are your priorities in developing the infrastructure?
I can hardly come up with any other new priorities than those laid out in the 2015 Palanga Strategic Development Plan, which defines our resort as a resort town of recreation, sport and wellness. Those recreational and sports objects that we are about to start building – a sports arena, running tracks, tennis courts, bike lanes and other projects – are foreseen in the Plan.
I want to speed up the process, as I cannot wait to see the resort nicer and more attractive. The results are already here, as Palanga is looking forward to opening a large spa center in the Palanga Hotel. Last week I was honored to participate in the celebratory ceremony of introducing its 520-meter mineral water borehole. Our four-party coalition’s program is strongly set for achieving recreational, sports and wellness targets.
Usually, Westerners are pleasantly surprised by the beauty of the local nature and the hospitality in Palanga. However, many of them admit to have never heard much of Palanga before. How are you intending to popularize Palanga in the West more?
Next year, provided the Municipality’s Council approves my intentions, we are going to allocate much more for a well-thought-out advertising campaign of Palanga resort. Undoubtedly, we need to work more through foreign media, foreign tourism information centers and other resources while popularizing Palanga. Our Tourism Information Center, I believe, must spearhead the efforts, as it has a good deal of experience in the pursuits. In addition, since we have five representatives of the Center abroad, to name them, in Moscow, Minsk, Riga, Kaliningrad and in a German town, I want to rev up their efforts. I do agree with you that Palanga needs a more exuberant advertising campaign. However, the entire Lithuania does so. The state itself has to rethink its advertising strategies.
The beauty and cleanliness of Palanga’s 18-kilometer beach has brought Palanga the quality certification of the Blue Flag Beach, which means that the beach meets the most stringent requirements of maintenance. I have heard about your efforts seeking inclusion of Palanga Botanic Park in the top 100 world botanic parks. Can you, please, elaborate?
To begin with, I am proud of our Botanic Park, which is one of the most beautiful parks all over. It is not just my observation – numerous foreigners assert that. Obviously, our Botanic Park and our Palanga Bridge are the most significant hallmarks of the town. We have recently completed the first leg of the Botanic Park’s reconstruction, and we are looking forward to carrying out the second leg of it. The EU has already allocated the needed funds. Once the second leg is over, the park will be renewed completely, attracting more visitors than ever. Regarding your question as far as the inclusion is concerned, we are still waiting for an answer from the compilers of the top 100 world parks. I hope we will be in those 100 best parks soon.
Obviously, Palanga would see larger tourist flows if you succeeded in attracting a budget airline, like Ryanair, to it. Have you started working on that as well? Does it make sense to share the airline’s operational expenses here, which is Ryanair’s demand?
Honestly speaking, Palanga alone cannot afford that. However, if other municipalities in the vicinity were to share the expenses, the likelihood of Ryanair’s arrival would be much higher. I have hinted about the expense sharing to some other mayors in the region, and they were interested. Moreover, some Klaipeda County mayors, including me, have met the vice-minister of Lithuania’s Ministry of Communications and Kaunas Airport’s head, and we have discussed the matter. Obviously, the mayors are money-conscious; however, in the long-term, the arrival of Ryanair would pay off. We have agreed that the Ministry will spearhead the further efforts. Asked by the vice-minister as to which travel destinations we would prefer, I told him our priorities are London, Hamburg and Moscow. I am looking forward to meeting heads of the Ministry again and pushing the matter further.
Do you find the existing tax policy to be favorable to entrepreneurism and investments in Palanga? How are you intending to improve the investment environment?
What comes from our ruling coalition’s program is we are ready to pass a Council’s ruling exempting from land and real estate taxes for three years those entrepreneurs who are ready to invest into recreational, sports and wellness objects in Palanga. The ruling is in the pipeline, and I hope it will be in force soon. Besides, we are considering significant advantages for those businessmen who contribute considerably to the development of local infrastructure. Certainly, Palanga is a good place for an investment, as it, in summer, meets large people flows of one million people per several months. No other town or resort can boast that. Statistically, in summer, hotels are booked 100 percent, or nearly so, while cafes and restaurants are hustling and bustling. I could not think of a better place for investing in high season. In winter, hotel occupancy averages well above 30 percent, which is enough to settle bills and make a profit.Therefore, any investment in Palanga, as a rule, pays off, and, most importantly for investors, they [investments] do not need any extra input to maintain the businesses. I want to mention just one hotel, Vanagupe, which has recently received 60 million litas in investments from several foreign investors. They are about to complete building an up-to-date conference hall. As I mentioned before, Palanga Hotel is about to invite everyone to its state-of-the-art spa. I ensure everyone that Palanga will do whatever it can to attract as much business as possible.
Next week, the Slovakian president is to set off for his state visit in Lithuania. Interestingly, he is flying to Palanga first. Do you not find the high-profile visit to be very symbolical to your visions of the town?
Indeed, it is a significant event. As far as I know, the president will visit Vilnius and Neringa as well. Obviously, he is interested in Lithuania’s resorts. I am honored to meet him here. He will be the first foreign head of state I have ever met in Palanga. Certainly, we will show that we have the best here.
What novelties is Palanga introducing this season?
Palanga Spa Center to be opened in July is a place to visit for some nice body and soul treatment. Of course, taking a stroll on the reconstructed Palanga Bridge is a must for everyone. Sure, who can skip the laid-back sunbathing in the Blue Flag beach? In addition, we have set free wireless Internet access in five public squares, and we are looking forward to expanding the service. Those who prefer a nice saunter during the day or eager to experience some bustle at night ought to see Jonas Basanavicius promenade. No doubt, everyone will find something up to his or her liking in Palanga. All are welcome here!
Thank you. Good luck with your mayoral endeavors.