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KLAIPEDA - If you saw them strolling down the street, you’d certainly cast a glance at them. Only because of the woman’s to-the-ankles long and sleek knit dress and fancy hat, both reminiscent of the czarist-era nobles’ fashion. And, sure, her “swaying” gait perhaps could better be suited on a catwalk in Paris than in the hustling-and-bustling shorts-and-shirt-sporting Basanavicius promenade in Palanga.
The gentleman next to the lady is usually heavy-set, noticeably older, wearing white pants and the same color semi-unbuttoned shirt, with a massive necklace dangling on his chest and a similarly impressive bracelet on the wrist. If there are children with them, they are alike fancifully and impeccably groomed. But when it comes to serving them in restaurants, some waiters grumble over their pickiness and nagging. But at the end of the day, they are the most wanted clients for being big spenders and tippers.
Who are they? Russians.
Lithuania among Russians’ top-ten hotspots
With Lithuania on the top-ten most-Russia-unfriendly-country list (the Russian Foreign Ministry this week has issued warning to Russians to avoid traveling to Lithuania, which some political analysts chalked off to the Baltic States’ presidents’ visit last week to the U.S. amid growing tensions over the Syria conflict), there could be hardly a less favorable presentation of Lithuania in Russia.
Still, the Russians snub the caveats and yearn for the Baltic whiff of Europe. And as a matter of fact, the number of Russians paying a visit to Lithuania last May was so high that, according to the Russian online hotel reservation network Oktogo.ru, Lithuania muscled into the top-ten European destinations Russians chose for their holiday in the Russian national holiday-rich May.
The other nine cities on the top-ten list were Kiev, Riga, Prague, Helsinki, Berlin, Paris, Vienna, Amsterdam and Tallinn.
The increasing popularity of Lithuania among the Slavic tourists does not surprise Lithuanian tourism sector pundits, like Raimonda Balniene, head of the Lithuanian Tourism Department (LTD).
“This has been the result of the targeted campaign in the Russian market. We see the participation in the international tourism exhibitions in Moscow, Saint Petersburg and Kaliningrad has played out well and, importantly, is paying out,” Balniene said.
Are stories about Russians overdone?
Some Lithuanian tourism destinations, like the resort of Palanga, heavily depend on the Russian flow. “Indeed, we do. We’ve had hundreds and thousands of walk-ins, and the majority of the visitors were Russian,” a representative of Palanga Tourism and Information Center told The Baltic Times.
But some, like Gintaras Siciunas, owner of Diemedis hotel and the same name of cafe in Palanga, says the importance of Russians often has been exaggerated over the last years. “I hear all the time overblown stories about Russians and their purchasing power in Palanga. The Russians we had here this summer were not big spenders. In fact, most of them seemed to be quite thrifty and spent less than [others],” Siciunas told The Baltic Times.
The reason? A much larger variety of activities in year-round resorts, like Mallorca or the Canary Islands, and perhaps the obscure political and economic perspective in Russia, Siciunas suggested.
“A Russian can hardly spend 1,000 euros in a week here with the activities we can suggest for him in Palanga. But for the money, he can get a lot more in other resorts,” the Palanga entrepreneur noted.
Slavic tourists get involved in more activities
Though the Lithuania-bound tourist traffic has recently increased both from the West and the East, the latter’s growth has quadrupled during 2006-2012. Meanwhile, the flow of Western tourists has inched up a mere 13 percent over the years. When it comes to hotel bookings, this translated last year to every third booking having been done either by Russians, Belarusians or Ukrainians.
For comparison, Westerners occupied only every fifth hotel room last year in Vilnius.
The purpose of the two groups’ stays also varies a lot. As a rule, half of the Westerners come here for holiday and recreation. The majority of Russians also choose Lithuania as a destination for their holidays, but most of them, unlike the Westerners, swing by for shopping at local malls and marts. This is especially characteristic of the Belarusians, the LTD research revealed.
Unlike the Western tourists, the Slavic tourists - like in the old days of the Soviet era - come in larger numbers to the Lithuanian resorts for spa and wellness treatments.
For comparison, only a tiny 2-plus-something percent of the Western Europeans sought Lithuania for that purpose.
And that is not the only difference between the two flows. Russians usually swarm the Lithuanian capital and the resorts of Druskininkai and Palanga. Western Europeans distinctively opt for seeing other major Lithuanian cities, the historic town of Trakai and the seaside, with Nida unquestionably being on top of the must-see list.
When it comes to spending, the average Russian tourist left daily roughly 333 litas (nearly 100 euros) last year, with the Westerner depositing some 277 litas.
Slavic tourist flow will persist
Balniene predicts that the incoming tourism trend will not change in the near future, with a large part of the traffic being from the same five countries: Russia, Belarus, Poland, Latvia and Germany. She says the number of Polish tourists has been steady and there have been more Scandinavian, Japanese and American tourists.
If all goes as predicted, the Tourism Department head expects incoming tourism should in fact go up by some 10 percent. This is “A forecast result of a dozen international tourism exhibitions, from NYC to Kiev,” Balniene said.
The department has ramped up its annual so-called business-to-business Lithuania introduction efforts in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. For that, it invited over 300 journalists from the regions to give a taste of Lithuania. As many as 600 foreign journalists are to tour Lithuania this year.
To bolster tourism regionally and work out the three Baltic States’ common tourism trademark ‘Three-in-One-Holiday,’ the LTD, working shoulder-to-shoulder with the Latvians and Estonians, exerts targeting far-flung tourism markets in North America, Japan and China. “Each Baltic country presented to them separately is too tiny. But presenting all three countries as a whole region does make a difference,” says the director.
To spur the curiosity about amber, the department, along with the World Tourism Organization, is set to organize an international conference to ‘know-all-about-amber.’
Belarus undeservedly in the shadows?
And though Belarus often remains undeservedly overshadowed by the other huge Slavic state, Russia, its impact on the Lithuanian economy has been ever more important. “I’d say Belarus is a whole lot more important to Lithuania than we can measure. As a matter of fact, the importance does not fully reflect in the official statistics, as the Lithuanian enterprises often invest in Belarus not directly from Lithuania, but rather from a country with lesser taxes,” says Nerijus Maciulis, Swedbank Lithuania’s chief economist.
But the preponderance of Belarusian buyers in Vilnius malls and marts is overwhelming. Particularly so with the opening of IKEA, the Swedish furniture and household appliance giant.
When it opened up in Vilnius a couple of weeks ago, as some online poster noted, there was “an impressive presence of Belarusian car license plates” in the nearby parking lots. Sure, in the store too.
The IKEA kick-off has triggered an online frenzy of shopping-thirsty Belarusians. “It’s great news! Get ready, Lithuania, for the huge Belarusian pilgrimage and, the Lithuanian Customs, get ready for a much bigger workload,” posted Tatyana on the Belarusian Web site kp.by.
If the buzz persists, not only will the Swedes be able to frolic, counting their profits, but also most businesses in Vilnius that eye the benefit from the Belarusian crowds as well. “The guests, no doubt, will stop by the local restaurants and check out other malls and food shops, as well as use the local transport and accommodation services,” noted Zygimantas Mauricas, Nordea Bank chief economist.
Dependency on Belarus increasing
“We ought to remember how the Lithuanians behaved themselves after managing to break through the ‘iron curtain’ during the Soviet era. People were dazzled with the abundance of goods in Berlin or Paris and went berserk buying. Many Belarusians now feel alike in Lithuania,” Vitoldas Mataciunas, an entrepreneur, told The Baltic Times.
Maciulis agrees, saying, for Belarusians, Vilnius is as interesting as Paris or London [is still interesting] for Lithuanians. “In Vilnius, they can buy articles and services that are often unavailable in their country, especially luxury items,” the economist noted.
Besides, due to the political climate in Belarus, the product markups are usually much higher than, for example, in Lithuania. A result of the investors’ striving to have their investments paid off as soon as possible.
Though the undemocratic regime is unpredictable, it does not shoo off most Lithuanian entrepreneurs eager to step into the neighboring market. In fact, there has been a lot of talk on Lithuania’s increasing dependency on Belarus. And the statistics, to the fear of many Lithuanian politicians, support it.
Lithuania-bound Belarusian exports have risen a whopping 38 percent through January to April, year-over-year, amounting to a ten-digit figure: 1,280,000,000 litas. “We cannot say absolutely we are entirely dependent on Belarus, but a dependency does exist. In the sense of investments and trade, it is not large. But the Klaipeda Seaport profits are largely being generated by Belarusian transporters,” said Vadimas Volovojus, an expert from the Center for Geopolitical Studies in Vilnius.
The share of the Belarusian cargo in the seaport is at an impressive 30 percent, and is likely to rise…,” he says.