COME IN TO THE COLD: With a warm winter in the Baltics, sports enthusiasts find some of the best snow inside, at the Snoras Snow Arena.
KLAIPEDA - The spring-like warm and snowless winter gladdens most heating cost-wary Lithuanians, but a dozen winter leisure centers are still closed in mid-January due to the lack of snow. Only Snoras Snow Arena, a year-round indoor skiing facility, one of the biggest of this kind in Eastern Europe, launched recently in Druskininkai, rakes in all winter sport fan’s money in its lengthy skiing and slalom lanes.
Stripped of a snowy winter, skiers are not in a hurry to equip themselves with winter sports outfits, thus contributing to a 40 percent winter sports and leisure goods sales plunge, year-on-year.
While the Lithuanian winter sports centers hint of possibly massive losses this season, travel organizers clap their hands, seeing an increasingly growing demand for skiing holidays abroad.
Cornered, winter clothing and sports outfit retailers are forced to offer flashy, unusual-for-winter sales discounts, but they, alas, also do not work. “The discounts are being offered not because of the sellers’ good will, but the difficulties they are dealing with. With the forecasts predicting this winter to be very cold, many stores hurried to stock their stores up to the ceilings. However, sales have been very slow, which is a poor excuse to the suppliers that urge payments for the goods,” Lina Skieruviene, head of the Purchasing Department of Vero Moda, a clothing store chain, says.
Other entrepreneurs, she says, have been taught by the crisis and were cautious in stocking their stores to the fullest.
Augustinas Pakulis, a representative of Sportland, a sporting goods store, agrees with the Vera Moda employee, confirming that customers are scarce in Sportland stores this winter. “Lithuanians tend to buy articles when they really need them. With the weather outside reminding one of spring, people simply walk past them,” Pakulis said.
Until mid-January, scarce snow fell only in the eastern part of the country, but it was not enough to open the skiing trails. “In the middle of January our skiing trails are still closed, as there is not enough snow. We have tried to make some snow with our own snow-making facilities, but they do not work properly due to the warm temperatures outside. Instead of spraying snowflakes, they sprinkle a watery drizzle. It is very disappointing,” Bronislavas Cicenas, director of Ignalina Winter Sports Center (IWSC), said to The Baltic Times.
He says at least minus 5 degrees Celsius is required for the snow-making machine to work.
The warm weather has been a big disappointment for winter sports athletes who have a training base in the IWSC, he says. Members of the Lithuanian Olympic biathlon and skiing teams, along with aspiring winter athletes from the youth teams, use the center’s facilities to get ready for the most important winter starts.
“Instead of using skis, they ride on rollerblades. Most of the athletes, especially the children and the teenagers, are very upset about that. I am sad also to see them scraping the asphalt. All are in anticipation of snow,” Cicenas says.
With the warm weather endangering their training process, it is rumored the teams may move to Druskininkai, which has a year-round indoor winter sports facility. Some winter sports insiders say the signed multi-year contract deterred the Olympic teams from doing so this season. “Their presence in our facility is very important to our business, as they are our regular customers who provide a significant part of our annual income here,” the IWSC director acknowledged. He added: “Besides the teams, we do not have any other big reservations yet this season.”
Grilled with questions over their possible move to a more convenient weather-resistant facility in Druskininkai, the director snubbed this gargantuan rival. “We’ve got long-standing traditions and services that we have been known for many years. We are the only winter sports center in the country that caters to professional sports, like biathlon and skiing. They [Druskininkai Snow Arena] have popped up out of nowhere, trying to lure in all possible crowds to pay back their huge [development] loan. Do not forget that the Druskininkai Snow Arena has been built with bankrupt Snoras money. With the bank off the map, I want to see how long its facility will stand on its own,” Cicenas bristled.
Having vented his courage, the director sighed, saying: “Well, to some extent, sure, we will be impacted by the Snoras Snow Arena launch. How much, it is still early to say. We have to wrap up the season first before jumping to any far-reaching conclusions,” the IWSC director cautioned.
The Ignalina Winter Sports Center, a non-profit establishment, he says, is financed by the state and the local municipality. “As such we can offer a more flexible price list. Druskininkai, in a hurry to pay back their massive loans, does not shy away from hiking up their prices. The customer will choose which facility is in his or her best interests. Money-wise, sure, we edge them out,” the director stressed.
By mid-January, the center’s income, he says, usually amasses to half of a whole season, but that is not the case this year. “So far we have earned a big zero, which is gnawing at last year’s slim profit. It is very alarming. We had a similar warm snowless winter only during the 2006-season. I hope God will send some snow in the coming days,” Cicenas told The Baltic Times.
After being quite deaf and blind for half the winter, God may be responding to his pleas – temperatures have fallen below zero Celsius in recent days, and the forecast says a late winter might set in soon.
In order to produce some snow, not some slush but the glimmering fluffy powder, Birstonas Skiing Center’s (BSC), in the south of the country, director Henrieta Miliauskiene, says they need even a colder temperature. “Our technology requires below 8 degrees Celsius to start snow production,” the BSC director says.
She speaks reluctantly of a possible loss due to the unfavorable weather conditions this winter. “It is too early to draw any conclusions in regard to a loss. We can speak of it only when we artificially spray snow, use water for it and electricity, and the snow is washed away by rain. Nevertheless, with the facility closed, you cannot expect any income,” Miliauskiene admitted.
Meanwhile, the Druskininkai Snow Arena, open 7 days a week, with the winter season at its midway point, has been swarmed with snow frolickers wishing to try out the 460-meter skiing trail, the fourth longest skiing trail in an indoor facility worldwide.
“The numbers of our visitors have picked up lately. Some skiers have to wait in the line for their turn to go down. We hope we will keep up the crowds with the holiday season over,” Milda Gaidyte, manager of Snoras Snow Arena, said to BNS.
The facility has also got an outdoor skiing trail, however, it is closed due to the unfavorable weather conditions.
The Snow Arena has been visited by over 100,000 winter sports fans by mid-January. “The guest number has started picking up in mid-November and it has been on a constant rise ever since,” the manager emphasized.
She says that, with the increasing visitor flows, the arena management plans to buy more winter sports outfits, skis, install several additional funiculars and open an outdoor skiing trail, investing roughly half a million litas (144.9 million euros) into this.
It is calculated that the arena’s 110 million litas in investments would pay off in seven years if it lures in around 300,000 skiers yearly. “The flows we have been enjoying through November and the beginning of January show we are on the right track. The crowd-generated income covers all our expenditures and the loans so far,” says Andrius Stasiukynas, director of Stamita, the operator of the arena.
“We saw up to 500 visitors on work-days daily until Christmas, and the number jumped up to 1,500 skiers, and a couple of times, up to 2 thousand visitors on the most busiest weekends and holidays,” Vytautas Zibuda, the arena manager general, revealed.
He says Lithuanians make up the bulk of the winter sports revelers, with Poles being the second in the turnout, and Russians being the third largest group. However, the arena chief manager says it is not yet the right time to pour joy over the traffic flows. “Had we usual weather for this time of year, we could open our outdoor skiing area. And, sure, measure ourselves against the smaller Lithuanian skiing centers, and those in the closest neighboring countries,” he says. He adds: “On the other hand, with snow nowhere to be seen, winter sports lovers come to Druskininkai.”
The prices Druskininkai offers, Stasiukynas stresses, are considerably lower than those in this kind of facility in Germany and Moscow. “And, most importantly, the quality we provide does not lag behind the rivals, I venture to say,” Stasiukynas said.
Polish, Swedish, Latvian, Finnish and Norwegian skiers train in the Druskininkai winter sports facility, and the Russian athletes could be added to the crowd soon with the negotiations with the Russian Olympic Committee over Russian skiers’ training camp in Druskininkai on the way.
When the skiing season is over in most European winter sports resorts, the Lithuanian arena operators intend to extend the arena opening hours. This will allow attracting more Westerners.
With the skiing-adverse weather lingering in Lithuania and neighboring countries until mid-January, most skiing-thirsty Lithuanians are buying winter holidays in the famous European skiing destinations, mostly in the Alps. “This kind of winter works well for winter travel organizers,” Algis Brazionis, director of Guliverio keliones (Gulliver’s Travels), a travel organizer, said to The Baltic Times. “If the winter is snowy and cold, most money-savvy Lithuanians would quench their thirst for skiing in the local skiing centers, or in the neighboring countries. Because of the adverse weather, we have seen an increase of skiing travels this winter,” the director said.
Those on a tight-budget, he says, tend to choose winter holidays in the Slovakian Vysokyje Tatry, a well-known skiing destination in Central Europe. “Such travel costs from 500 litas on average, and the price goes up with more services provided. Those capable of splurging cannot resist the beauty of the Alps. Most of the Alps-bound travelers end up in Austria, Italy or France, and pay from 1,200 litas for this kind of travel at least,” Brazionis said.
Andrius Stonys, founder of the portal for slalom fans, Slalom.lt, says Lithuanians usually opt for the Lithuanian or Latvian skiing centers, or cheaper skiing destinations, like Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland. “However, now all comes back to the pre-crisis level, with the skier numbers increasing 10 percent yearly. With skiing’s adverse weather conditions continuing, I predict a 30 percent increase in skiing travel, most to the Alps,” Stonys said to The Baltic Times.
Compared to the neighboring countries, skiing is much more popular in Lithuania, he maintains. Approximately 300,000 compatriots get onto skis every year, the Slalom.lt founder says. This winter-like-spring skiing season will apparently see that number scaled down.