A holiday spot to love

  • 2002-08-15
  • Matt Kovalick, VILNIUS
Britons are expected to tune in en masse to see young British couple Patrick and Ashley hoping to find romance as they stroll down the elegant cobble stones of Vilnius' Pilies Street, climb the TV tower for a birds' eye view of the city and ride horses at a local stable.

The many fans of Britain's popular TV show "Blind Date" will have to wait a few months for the show to air to see if Vilnius has any right to claim Paris' title as the city of love.

But back here in Lithuania, tourism operators, city officials and local businesses are much more interested in whether British viewers at large will fall in love with Vilnius.

"Any exposure the British public gets to the Lithuanian tourism industry is beneficial, and we support any promotion of Lithuania in Britain," said Sally Chambers, a consultant with lithuanianholidays.com, a British-based travel company that specializes in trips to the Baltic state.

The company arranged the couple's dream date to Vilnius with "Blind Date" producers to help promote trips to the capital, countryside holidays, bird-watching trips and emigre excursions for returning Lithuanians searching for family roots.

The 16-year-old dating show still draws roughly 10 million British viewers, Chambers said, and the potential exposure is huge. Once a couple is chosen to participate, they choose their destination from a sealed envelope. A short advertising display of their destination is then aired.

City officials hope the exposure helps put Vilnius on the map - or at least helps foreigners stop mistaking the Baltics for the Balkans.

"One challenge is creating a new image of Lithuania, as it is often perceived as a cold, underdeveloped country with nothing to offer the tourist," said Chambers, an ex-employee of the Baltic-based tourism guide, Vilnius In Your Pocket. "It is our task to dispel this myth."

Tourism officials said a total of 160,000 foreigners visited Vilnius in 2001, a 14 percent increase over 2000. But the same period saw a double-digit percentage drop in tourists from Great Britain, something lithuanianholidays.com hopes to remedy.

"It's difficult for state organizations to promote tourism because there seems to be so little financial support from the government for this highly influential area of the economy," said Phil Teubler, the owner of lithuanianholidays.com, who began the business after visiting his father's birthplace in Pagegiai.

That's not to say Vilnius doesn't have sights to see. Museums, restaurants and the nearby Trakai castle, nestled amid lush green landscape and beautiful lakes, where many tourists windsurf, are tops on most tourists' lists, and all were visited by the happy British couple on "Blind Date."

"Now, sports and recreational clubs are giving private persons the chance to take part in their activities. I see real potential in the options for active tourism," said Evald Roos, a Danish consultant at Force One, a Vilnius-based company specializing in corporate team building and special events.

"Vilnius is being promoted at international travel fairs. Last year, we had an advertising campaign in Helsinki and Tallinn. This year there were campaigns in Copenhagen and Stockholm airports," said Mindaugas Paula-vicius, head of a Vilnius' tourism agency.

"We put in quite an effort for the "Blind Date" visit to Vilnius and of course we are very excited about this opportunity. I hope Vilnius will be labeled a nice town for weekend trips and beyond," said Paulavicius.

"When they opened the envelope and announced they were going to Vilnius, I had to get the Atlas out," said "Blind Date" field producer, Debbie Price.

After a weekend of filming, though, Price called Vilnius "beautiful and full of culture."

A source from "Blind Date" said after filming that the British pair was mightily impressed and vowed they would return.

"It's a very romantic story. I'm happy they are interested in Vilnius," said Deputy Mayor Vitas Maciulis, who presented the pair with designer shirts adorned with maps of the city.