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RETURN OF THE VIKINGS: Scandinavians are discovering the attractions of Lithuania’s beaches.
KLAIPEDA - This year’s high tourism season in Lithuania has been off to a great start, with the flow of foreign visitors rising to record heights. As many of the joyful tourism policy-makers – for the first time in many years – are swooning already over the moon, some of the trends that have led to the double-digit growth really make them scratch their heads and think over the state’s tourism policies.
Scandinavians swarming to Lithuania
The melodic crooning heard from a Swede will likely be a whole lot more common occurrence in Lithuania from now on.
“Frankly, there had been quite reasonable doubts whether tourism companies in Scandinavian countries could tweak the numbers for more Lithuanian tourism. And what a pleasant surprise: as they’ve done a tremendous job, the Swedes, Danes, Finns and Norwegians are muscling their way onto Lithuania-bound planes and ferries,” Evalda Siskauskiene, president of Lithuanian Hotels and Restaurants Association (LHRA), told The Baltic Times.
“I seriously doubt whether the Lithuanian Tourism Information Center itself could have better boosted Lithuania-bound tourism.”
Of 10 major sources of inbound tourists, Lithuania has seen double-digit growth from nine of them during the first quarter of 2014.
Up 27 percent, tourists from Belarus are flocking in; there is a record 28 percent increase of Estonians; an impressive 20.3 percent larger flow of Finns; a 20 percent rise of Latvians and a more restrained 11.4 percent and 10.4 percent hike, respectively, in the number of Germans and Norwegians. This is what Lithuania is reaping this year.
“For a start to the year, this definitely has been one of the best results we have seen throughout Lithuania’s tourism history,” Raimonda Balniene, director of Lithuania’s State Tourism Department (LSTD), said.
In comparison, only a mere 6.3 percent increase in foreign tourist flow was registered in the first quarter of 2013, against the previous year’s same period.
Interestingly, Estonia saw only a 7 percent rise in foreign tourist visits during the first quarter of 2014, and a tiny 3 percent higher from local tourism.
Lithuania benefits from Ukraine upheaval
As the traditional Russian-speaking regions are also seeing more locals packing up for Lithuania, part of the increase, unexpectedly, has come due to Ukraine’s political turmoil.
Wary and weary of the bloodshed and, hence, uncertainty, many Ukrainians tend to bypass the conflict regions, and also a seceded Crimea – a traditional vacation destination for many Ukrainians – and venture to new tourism spots nearby.
“Many Ukrainians reminisce of the Lithuania they, or their parents, had visited. In searching for a ‘culturally-friendly’ spot where locals have a good command of Russian, a usual prerequisite of Slavic holidaymakers, Lithuania comes off on top for many,” the LHRA head noted.
Whopping increase of Ukrainian tourists
Still, a whopping 87 percent surge in Ukrainians having visited Lithuania from January to March, which has caught both Balniene and Siskauskiene “pleasantly” surprised.
“The steep number has been a result of a whole larger, overwhelming Lithuanian strategy to focus on the Russian-speaking regions,” the association head said modestly.
“I really believe that Ukraine has the potential of becoming one of the top 10 of Lithuania’s incoming tourism markets. Having coped with the upheaval the country has been through, Ukrainians are likely to go further than their usual holiday destinations,” the LSTD director said.
On average, overall 17 percent more foreigners and 14.1 percent more Lithuanians have chosen Lithuania for their getaway during the first quarter of the year. Interestingly, the flow of Polish tourist has remained almost on the same level – up 1 percent during 2014’s first quarter over the previous year.
Meanwhile, the influx of Brits has dwindled by 5 percent.
Lithuanians set to newly discover… Lithuania
A rise in the numbers of Lithuanians getting on local roads and highways in search of local “new Americas” also is “a pleasant surprise of the year” for both tourism sector executives. “Well, this is the aftermath of an improving infrastructure and new traditions,” said Balniene.
“As many compatriots have already travelled outside the country, now they are eager to see what Lithuania has better, or best,” the LSTD director said.
Over one million Lithuanians are expected to get on the road and seek local accommodation for a quick local getaway this year, shows an estimate by the Tourism Department.
But the disparities of regional development are just too high to have the regions enjoying a similar piece of the cake. As, for example, Vilnius welcomed 20.2 percent of the locals-on-the-road during the year’s first quarter, only 11 percent of Lithuanians chose other domestic locations for their escape.
Major Lithuanian resorts were also among the top five picks for holiday destinations, both for foreigners and locals, but none has been a rival for Birstonas, а booming and expanding resort near Kaunas which saw a 39 percent increase in visitor numbers.
“Interestingly, the flows in most popular local destinations are spreading out quite evenly lately. This is a sign that the problem of seasonality will perhaps be gradually diminishing,” Balniene noted.
Ramped-up consular workforce in Belarus
Targeting specific Belarus and Russia tourism markets may soon lead to new Lithuania-bound tourism heights, she believes. “The more the situation in the region remains unstable, the more Russians and Ukrainians will ponder spending their vacation in an environment similar to the one they were used to in the Crimea. I mean, the language and climate. In that sense, Lithuania really suits them,” Balniene said.
To boost the Slavs’ trips to the Baltics, the State Tourism Department agreed with the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry to expedite visa granting procedures for holiday-minded Belarusians.
Lithuania has sent some extra consular workers to Minsk and Grodno.
“The neighbors are an important force in driving the Vilnius economy,” said a representative of the Vilnius Tourism Information Center. “And, sure, they are welcome everywhere in the country.”
“Most of the Slavic tourists are big spenders,” agreed Alma Slaboseviciene, a manager at Palanga Tourism Information Center.
“But, frankly, Palanga has seen very few of the Ukrainians this year so far,” she insisted to The Baltic Times.
Guests cannot be missed
Some of the Slavic guests can hardly be missed, especially in Lithuanian resorts they choose for pampered body treatments. If you saw them sauntering down the street in summer, you’d certainly cast a glance at a Slavic woman’s to-the-ankles long and sleek knit dress and fancy hat.
Meanwhile, the gentleman next to her will likely be a money-bag, heavy-set and noticeably older, wearing white pants and the same color semi-unbuttoned shirt, with a massive gold chain dangling on his chest.
But who cares about the foppery when it comes to big time spending? And though the Belarus and Ukraine guests often remained, until now, in the shadows of the Russians, the former two’s impact on Lithuania’s economy will certainly be increasing.
“They want to buy our real estate, they do not care much about the prices, and they are often easier to please than Russians,” a Palanga real estate investor told The Baltic Times.
Gobs of money bypass Lithuania
In fact, many more Eastern neighbors from Ukraine and Belarus could end up splashing around in Lithuanian spas and engulfed in shopping sprees at local malls, if not for the consular burdens.
Though much has been done in improving consular services in Minsk and Grodno, the numbers of Ukrainians and Belarusians waiting to have their applications for Lithuanian visas processed are still too large.
“I’d say thousands of Ukrainians who have scrapped their Crimea vacation plans, with the selloff of vacation packages in Bulgaria, now remain stranded. If we had the capacity to process their applications for a Lithuanian visa more quickly, we’d see additional gobs of money in our coffers,” the LSTD director said.