ANOTHER ESCAPE ROUTE: Ariandas Sliupas says that additional flights by low-cost airlines is proving popular.
KLAIPEDA - With summer and the holiday season within reach, compatriots dust off their suitcases and browse the Web for an escape. For many, this means a perfect combination of price and quality at a resort abroad, a pleasant discovery during the crisis-plagued years, which might already be over for most.
Tourism sector rebounds
Viktorija Misiunaite, a travel agency representative, says that the increasingly larger travel booking numbers point to better times for most Lithuanians. “In fact, the travel sector has rebounded very robustly and exponentially after the financial crunch, both around the world, and Europe and Lithuania,” says Misiunaite.
According to the World Tourism Organization (WTO), countries around the world earned approximately $1 trillion from tourism last year, a nearly three-fold surge from the previous year.
WTO secretary general Taleb Rifai notes the increase is “very encouraging” despite the uneven recovery in the world economy. He also emphasizes that the tourism surge has been crucial for countries plagued with low domestic consumption. This is the case of Lithuania where tourism supplemented state coffers with 4.7 billion litas (a bit over 1.3 billion euros) in 2011, a 16.2 percent surge from 2010.
“According to the European Travel Commission, which compared tourism flow growth in the EU member states, Lithuania last year was second within the EU, right after Latvia,” says Raimonda Balniene, head of Lithuania’s State Tourism Department (STD). She expects the surge will continue this year as well.
Holidays abroad are often cheaper
With tourism seemingly back on track, many travel market insiders discern several new trends in their compatriots’ habits when it comes to making holidays plans.
“During the 2008 crisis the tourist numbers shrunk considerably, but many Lithuanians, unwilling to give up their annual holidays, have discovered price-friendly Greek, Cypriot and Turkish resorts. They were often the alternative to their usual holidays in Lithuania, or other countries. With the downturn fallout easing, many people seem to stick with the new destinations for their holidays,” says Rimvydas Sirvinskas, a well-known tourism expert, who is known for his popular TV travel program.
“The crisis for many served as an eye-opener when it comes to making holidays arrangements. A lot of folks have grasped the idea that vacationing abroad can be a lot cheaper than at the Lithuanian seaside,” says Sirvinskas, as he adds: “In terms of holidays, the crisis is already behind us for 90 percent of Lithuanians, who are eager to hop onto a budget-carrier plane for a number of once-hardly reachable destinations, like Greece’s Rhodes and Kos islands, Mallorca, Malta or Cyprus.”
Ryanair, Europe’s budget carrier that has its base in Kaunas, operates flights to these and some other traveler-popular holiday hubs.
Lithuanians learn to plan their holidays
Travel experts also notice other downturn-affected trends in the market. “Before, a lot of Lithuanians would take advantage of last-minute deals. Simply speaking, buying a travel ticket one day and getting on the plane the next. This has changed, with most travel organizers offering summer travel sell-outs still in the deep winter. The shift allows potential vacationers to plan their budgets, as the travel organizers have more tools and time, strategizing their activities throughout year,” says Misiunaite.
Sirvinskas agrees: “Definitely, travel organizers want holiday-makers to make their holiday arrangements as early as possible nowadays. Last year, the new travel season offers were introduced in March, but the 2012 seasonal novelties were revealed a lot earlier, in December.”
Organized travel versus independent arrangements
What is better, to take advantage of the budget-carriers’ seductive low-fare destinations and plan further holiday arrangements on your own once in Greece or Cyprus, or indulge the hospitality of a travel organizer, though you’ll be paying more for it?
Probably there is no single answer to this question, but Balniene from STD says that travel organizers have been seeing a lower percentage of “organized travelers” for quite some time. “This should be chalked up to the widespread penchant for saving. Statistically, for four-fifths of Lithuanians, the principle criterion in choosing travel is still the price. Sure, travel organizers can rarely compete with the Web offers,” says Misiunaite.
Sirvinskas favors independent travel. “I do not want to belittle the travel organizers, as I myself use their services sometimes. However, if one wants to experience all the colors and tinges of a foreign destination, I’d strongly suggest making travel arrangements on your own. It may be a bit scary the first time, quite interesting on your next trip, and unimaginable in a different way on your following trips.”
Nevertheless, he admits, “being on your own” poses certain inconveniences and even stress. “Once I flew to Brussels without taking a look at the map of the city’s sightseeing spots, and even not knowing how to get from the airport to the hotel. The un-preparedness caused a good deal of stress,” says the traveler.
Rhodes has been a hit
Wizz Air and Ryanair, the cheap air carriers offering an increased number of flights from Kaunas and Vilnius this season, have been from the start a hit for Lithuanians. “The Rhodes itinerary has got off to a surprisingly good start, with flights being 85 percent, or more, booked. The introduction of the route in Kaunas Airport has been the biggest success for us ever,” says Ariandas Sliupas, Kaunas Airport director.
Though the Tourism Department claims the carriers have been constantly, every year, chipping away at travel organizers’ clientele, travel agencies tend to scoff at the estimation. “The loss of our clients due to the introduction of the South-bound itineraries is insignificant, as mostly young people with very limited resources opt for independent travel using the cheap air-carriers. We have many cases when they, having experienced an array of inconveniences while making travel arrangement on their own, walk into our offices for traditional travel,” a travel agency representative, who didn’t want to disclose his name, said.
Some buy part of a travel package
Andrius Caplevas, director general of Sofa Travel, also downplays the budget carriers’ influence on the traditional market. “The flows getting on the low-cost airlines’ planes, and our charter planes, are quite different. We cater to a more solid clientele, most often families and couples older than 25. Effectively, regardless of age, there are lot of people who opt for organized travel,” says Caplevas.
Nira Koltun, head of Product Department at West Express, a chain of the same name travel agencies, also notices a trend that people tend to buy travel packages earlier. “As early as winter,” she says.
The travel agency representative notes that a good deal of travelers book not only air tickets in the chain’s travel agencies, but also apartments and hotels in the country of their destination, even if they decide to decline the agency’s air fare and choose to pick one on their own.
“Our analysis has shown that travel agencies can nearly always offer cheaper air fares, or accommodation abroad, than the public reservation systems on the Web. The part of tourists preferring a part of a travel package is constantly increasing,” says Koltun.
Lithuanians enjoy cruises
Koltun says that major travel directions this year remain the same as before. “Among the trendiest summer holiday destinations still are Turkey, Bulgaria, Greece and Croatia,” the department head says. She adds: “However, in winter, a number of Lithuanians pick very exotic travel to such far-flung countries as Vietnam, Israel, Philippines, Sri Lanka or Thailand.”
Koltun also notes that Lithuanians are discovering cruises. “Before, only a few would inquire about them, but, in recent years a lot more holiday-makers take them. In summer, most pick the Mediterranean cruise, while in winter some compatriots sail out from cruise ship ports such as Singapore, Dubai and Miami. Obviously, the stereotype that cruises are not affordable has been blunted,” notes the travel agency representative.
She, however, says that Lithuanians tend to stick with their travel habits and are uneager to change them.