Tourism numbers up in Vilnius, Baltics

  • 2000-04-20
  • By Peter J. Mladineo
VILNIUS - Tourism has been recovering in the Baltic States. At LitExpo April 13-15, a tourism trade fair brought out travel agents, state and local tourism representatives from across Lithuania and Europe, airline reps, backpack suppliers and other vendors even tangentially affiliated with the travel industry.

The State Tourism Department reported that 4 percent more tourists came to Lithuania in 1999 than in 1998, although 1998 saw the country's tourism increase by 16 percent.

"There were some problems because of the Russian crisis. We felt that last year. We feel that it's improving now," said Skirmante Baliuliene, an infrastructure consultant with the Vilnius Municipality tourism division.

Last year, Lithuania saw 1.42 million tourists and 4.45 million foreigners in general, who spent 2.4 billion litas ($600,000), or 5.6 percent of the country's gross national product. Add to that Lithuanians traveling within Lithuania, and tourism equals 12 percent of GDP. That would make tourism one of the most important industries in Lithuania.

The largest numbers of foreign visitors to Lithuania last year were 1.48 million from Russia, followed by 1.2 million Latvians, 762,000 Belarusians, 319,000 Estonians, and 179,000 Poles.

The biggest overall spenders, Baliuliene said, were Americans and Canadians, although the leaders in daily average expenditures were tourists from Norway and Sweden. The smallest spenders were Lithuanians, followed by Latvians.

In Vilnius, the average tourist expenditure per capita was 1,189.6 litas per trip. The average daily expenditure was 246 litas for local tourists, 394 litas for foreigners.

"Many tourists liked Vilnius because they thought the people were welcoming, there was a high-quality culture and it was a good investment for the money," Baliuliene said.

The biggest complaint was the city's transportation services and lack of public toilets. There was also a lack of adequate information signage around the city -a problem the municipality is already addressing.

"The signs are already made but the problem is where will they be placed," Baliuliene added. "Only Vilnius lacks these signs. Vilnius' competitor Kaunas already has these signs."

Representatives from other areas in Lithuania were there touting their rural attractions. Ilona Mencinskaite, a tourism organizer from the Svencionys region municipality, said that most of the tourists to her region came for the natural parks and lakes.

"Many come from Saint Petersburg, and a few Lithuanian-Americans return home to Aukstaitija from the United States," but most of the Svencionys region's visitors were Lithuanian, she added.

Near to Svencionys is Aukstaitija National Park, Lithuania's largest natural reserve. At 40,000 hectares, the park is located in the heart of the Ignalina region, not to be confused with the famed Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant.

While Ignalina bears the name of the region, it is actually located 55 kilometers from the park, in Visaginas. That's a bummer for many European tourists.

"They ask where the nuclear power plant is. When I tell them it's 55 kilometers northeast, they are surprised and disappointed because they expect to find it here in Ignalina," said Linas Stanaitis, a representative for the park.

Stanaitis said a sharp drop in tourists from Lithuania last year was replaced by a 5 percent increase in the number of Western tourists. The national park accomplished this through two years of active marketing campaigns in Western Europe.

"We took part in fairs like this in Berlin and Oslo, and made contacts with other national parks and tourism representatives in Scandinavia. Plus the Ignalina regional municipality had contacts with other municipalities in Norway. They marketed us in Norway and Scandinavia," Stanaitis said.

Like Ignalina, nuclear submarines had been a good attraction for the Latvian city of Liepaja. Unfortunately for Liepaja, Andris Maisins of the Liepaja Tourism Information Center explained, the Soviet Union had arranged to sell-off the nuclear subs to a German company, which a year ago dissembled them and hauled them back to Germany.

"This is stupid but this is reality," said Dace Gaile, assistant director of the Latvian Tourism Development Agency.

Now Latvia's "Amber Trail" and other national attractions must pick up the slack.

"The important thing is that now more and more people are coming to other parts of Latvia, not only to Riga," Dace Zarina, project coordinator, said. She noted that the vast majority of Liepaja's tourists were from Latvia, followed by Germany, Sweden and Finland. Unlike Lithuania, Latvia doesn't see a large number of Russians coming to visit, because they have too many problems getting visas to the country.

Estonian tourism representatives also stressed the importance of increasing tourism to regions outside of the country's capital.

"The second largest region is western Estonia, which includes Parnu, Haapsalu and the two islands," said Andrus Nomm, head of marketing for the Estonian Tourist Board. "Parnu calls itself the summer capital of Estonia. It's a resort for young people. The water is quite clean in the bay. It warms up very quickly and stays warm until September. The warmest waters in Estonia are in Parnu."

The southern region of Estonia is known as the winter capital of Estonia, reports Margo Peetsalu, the Estonian Tourist Board's project coordinator.

"Small hills there make it possible for alpine skiing," he said.

But perhaps the major change for southern Estonia has been a transitioning from an agricultural economy to a new concept of agro-tourism.

"There are lots of tourist farms in southern Estonia. Ten years ago it was agriculture, now the priority is agro-tourism," Peetsalu said.

Last year Estonia attracted 3.14 million tourists, predominantly Finnish, and tourism in the country grew by 15 percent - a marked contrast to Lithuania's stagnant 1999.

"According to the European Tourism Commission we are one of the fastest growing tourist markets in Europe. The main markets for us are Finland, Sweden, and Latvia, so the Russian crisis didn't affect us," Peetsalu said.

The Kaliningrad representative boosted the Russian oblast's nostalgia tourists and white beaches.

"Many tourists from Germany come to us. They come with nostalgia and love for their native city," said Svetlana Pivneva, financial director for the Kaliningrad-based Exotics Travel Agency.

Recall that Kaliningrad was originally held by Germany and was called Koenigsberg until the conquering Soviet Army came in 1945. Economic problems and corruption still abound in Kaliningrad as in other Russian cities, but, says Pivneva, the tourist industry is still alive.

"People still want to go abroad and tourists still want to come despite the economic difficulties."