An old favorite rises from the mud

  • 2002-05-02
  • Matt Kovalick

All the way along Vilniaus Street in Druskininkai, green stems poke through soil in flower beds. After another month, the many trees and flowers should be in full bloom and the walking path should be bustling with visitors. Much like the cycle of the seasons, the town of Druskininkai is emerging from a long and dark winter that started when the Soviet Union collapsed and with it disappeared the town's life-blood – wellness addicts and tourists.

A town of 21,500 people located on the Nemunas River a few kilometers north of the borders with Belarus and Poland, Druskininkai has been in a coma for a decade. But now it is awaking. There is an air of cautious optimism about the future as the promise of new investments begins to revive the town, which was renown for its curative spas.

Druskininkai, which comes from "druska," salt in Lithuanian, has been a health resort for over 200 years. In 1794, King Stanislovas Augustas declared the area a place for curative treatments because of its natural salt water springs. Ever since, the town has grown as a health resort destination. According to Mayor Ricardas Malinauskas, at its pinnacle during the Soviet period it was the largest health resort in Europe.

But few towns in Lithuania have had a more difficult transition to a market economy.

"During Soviet times and especially during the 1980s, Druskininkai developed very rapidly because of large demand," said Malinauskas. "Large sanitarium and hotel buildings were constructed. Now they are a burden. Many people were left unemployed (following independence)."

Unemployment hovers at around 30 percent. Giant, dilapidated buildings are a shell of their former selves. Hotels such as the Nemunas and the Egle with over 650 rooms each used to accommodate thousands of guests 12 months a year.

Now they hibernate during the winter months and re-open their doors when more tourists return in the late spring or summer. According to government statistics, the gargantuan physiotherapy center has lost between $75,000 and $100,000 each of the past three years and the Lithuanian Ministry of Health cannot afford to pay for renovations

One problem is the decline of pensioners who used to come to Druskininkai for treatments. Ramune Mardafeviciute, who was on duty at the town's main tourist information office, said that the number of Russian and Polish visitors have decreased sharply.

"Russians don't come because it is difficult for them to get visas to travel to Lithuania," she said. "Lithuanian consulates are only located in St. Petersburg and Moscow, so it makes it difficult for those in the periphery to obtain proper documentation."

The number of Polish tourists has dropped from approximately 17,000 three years ago to 8,000 now because the Polish government is subsiding treatment at local sanitariums. Polish pensioners can now receive treatment in Poland for about the same price as it would cost to come to Lithuania.

Another concern was that a tour operator had a monopoly on packaged trips and has limited the number of visiting Israeli pensioners, another source of tourists in July and August. Malinauskas recently traveled to Israel to try to fix the situation.

Ramune also explained that the biggest hotels are not equipped for more modern tourists. Customer demands have changed, she said.

During the Soviet period, workers' unions would provide vacation packages and would stay in Druskininkai for free.

The quality of the rooms was of less concern, she said. Most of the rooms were sparsely furnished singles and doubles without baths.

Now that visitors are paying for themselves, they expect modern standards and more luxurious accommodations.

The new, three-star, 40-room Regina Hotel is one of the signs that new investment is trickling back into Druskininkai.

Opened in September 2001, it's steadily building a client base and is benefiting from the lack of modern, upscale competition.

Gitana Siauliene, the hotel's event and conference manager, said that 15 conferences had already taken place since it opened and that the summer was being booked quickly.

Now hotel management is considering expansion, with plans to possibly build a conference center or a spa center.

"We couldn't find a hotel with Western standards in Druskininkai, and we had a lot of tour groups that wanted to go there," said Siauliene. "Therefore, we decided to have our own hotel. We think that Druskininkai is a very good health resort for Lithuanians and visitors from Germany, Russia, Poland, and around Europe who want to come to Lithuania."

"I love it here," said Eric Kaminski, a Polish-born American who resides in Warsaw.He traveled to stay in Druskininkai for two weeks because it's quiet, relaxing, and costs 50 percent less than treatment in Poland.

Besides the mediocre food at the Lietuva sanitarium where he stayed, Kaminski finds the mud and herbal treatments pleasant.

"If someone was smart and had some capital, it would be a great place to invest," he said.

The nearby Grutas Soviet Sculpture Park, which has become one of Lithuania's most popular tourist attractions, has helped more than 100,000 tourists a year to within 10 kilometers of Druskininkai.

Back at the mayor's office, Malinauskas said he hoped potential businessmen would share his optimism about the town. He pulled out an impressive bar graph that shows investments in Druskininkai over the past three years.

In 1999 investments totaled 2.2 million litas ($550,000). By the end of this year that is expected to grow to 38 million litas.

This figure includes building renovations, a gas pipeline from Belarus, additional roads and parking, and equipment to keep the town clean. The figure may double to approximately 80 million litas if financing is approved for a new water theme park.

In the past, Druskininkai relied solely on older people seeking medical treatment. One of the town's goal is to diversify in order to attract younger people and families.

"We distributed surveys and asked people what they felt was missing," said Ramune from the tourist office "The top response was 'leisure activities' because they feel there is little to do."

With the potential addition of an aqua park, new spa centers, and a renovated sports hall that could accommodate professional teams, there soon may be more to do.

In the future, the mayor strongly believes that Druskininkai will be a "modern leisure and resort town that appeals to children, parents and grandparents.

"Because the (tourist) season is quite short, we need more indoor activities to extend the entire year," he said

Even the planned aqua park will be covered so it will function all year long.

Malinauskas also emphasized the importance of preserving Druskininkai's beautiful and clean natural surroundings.

"Lithuania was rated the cleanest country in Europe, and Druskininkai the cleanest place in Lithuania," he said. "There is no industry (besides tourism and health therapies.)"

His message to potential investors is clear: "If you want to make small investments you should do it now because in two to three years there will be much more competition."

Druskininkai is on the mend, but any celebration of future success is tempered by the reality that a third of the population remains unemployed and many buildings are crumbling and empty. As renovations are completed and more visitors return, this town of treatment and therapies could end up healthier than it ever was before.