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  Vol. 11, No. 3, 2003
Where Storks Rule the Roost

Country holidays have become the fastest-growing business in rural areas

Jolanta Paškevičienė

Today, rural tourism is the leading business in the countryside,” says Regina Sirusienė, president of the Rural Tourism Association. This can be seen from the statistics: over one year the number of households involved in it has tripled.

Three years ago, 24,000 people spent their holidays on a farm. In 2001, it was 67,000. Last year the number increased to 110,000. This means that rural residents have found a new source of income, and that those who live in the cities can afford such holidays.

The people who start this type of business are usually families living in the countryside, and all members of the family are involved. They are versatile people who very often do not have spare money to invest. Therefore, they try to do their best to improve their buildings and the surroundings themselves. They build extra wings with their
own hands, and find new ways to serve their customers.

The luckiest are those who live near lakes, rivers or forests. Spectacular natural surroundings attract many holidaymakers. Those who live in areas without these attractions are less fortunate. They need either a rich imagination or lots of money.

The most popular arrangement is when local residents rent out their house during the warm season, and move to less comfortable quarters. This way, they are always there to serve their customers, by offering them various services. The income helps them to survive during the quiet season, or to purchase new equipment.

Sometimes city residents decide to go into the country holiday business too. They take the matter more seriously: they invest more money in the comfort and luxury of their accommodation, and charge higher prices. This explains why there is such a big difference in prices for accommodation, ranging from 10 to 220 litas per night.


THE INSPIRATION

“I remember well how five or six years ago nobody believed that rural tourism would ever be a serious business,” says Regina Sirusienė. “Neither ordinary people, nor the bureaucrats with whom everything rests.”

She was one of the first to get a permit to go into the business, and started receiving foreigners at her house in Kuršėnai in the Šiauliai district.

The Rural Tourism Association was founded on her initiative in 1997. Starting with three members, a year later it had 17.

In order to gain experience, Sirusienė, who has a degree in psychology, visited many European countries and studied in the USA. Now she has an MA in tourism management and administration.

She currently heads the association, which has 1,000 members. Her son has taken over their well-organised and profitable business.

“So far we are not on the same level as urbanised European countries, and we cannot apply the same business laws. Many villagers started up in the business by using urban comforts and entertainments to attract visitors.
“People still have a soft spot for the countryside. I think that, with time, more traditional farmsteads will appear.”


STORKS ON THE ROOF

Lithuanians, who traditionally used to take their holidays by the Baltic Sea, recently started to change their habits.
Some five years ago, the decision to take two holidays would have raised eyebrows. Now it is becoming more and more common. Today even those in the middle income bracket can afford to take winter holidays in countries with warmer climates such as Turkey, Crete, Bulgaria or Croatia.

Holidays at home have also undergone fundamental changes. People who used to spend their vacations boating, cycling or driving, sleeping in tents and cooking over a campfire, are increasingly choosing to stay on a farmstead.

When planning a country holiday, it is best to go and see with your own eyes the amenities on offer, to find out about services not included in the original price, and to negotiate the price with the hosts in advance.

However, if this is not possible, you can consult the catalogue published annually by the Lithuanian Rural Tourism Association.

This year’s issue covers almost 300 farms in all districts, although the total number of farmers offering holidays is close to 1,000. A star system is used to rate hotels. A similar system is used to rate farms, only instead of stars the level of comfort is designated by storks.

One stork means that you must be prepared to sleep on hay, in a barn, or in a very basic house. You will probably stay on your own and receive very limited services from the host.

Four storks guarantees that, besides a high level of comfort, the farm also offers a wide range of services and activities, and that the facilities are suitable for organising celebrations, seminars or conferences.

In the catalogue, next to the photograph of each farm, there are boxes that provide information on the type of accommodation (traditional farm, summer house or manor), the languages spoken by the hosts, and what activities can be expected.

Demand shows that various types of farms, both simple and luxurious, are favoured. Tourists usually prefer to stay on isolated farms, rather than in villages. Preference is given to wooden houses. Traditional homesteads with modern amenities are the most popular type of accommodation.

Some hosts even prepare meals for you. If you stay with simple and hospitable farmers, the food prepared from the produce grown on the farm will not cost you much.
If you have ever had the chance to see inside the kitchen of a farmer’s wife, you probably know that they stuff their own sausages, press cheeses, make their own preserves, and dry mushrooms and herbs. If a family offers you a seat at their table, you will get an even better taste of country life.

Some farmers may invite their guests to go mushroom picking, and are not afraid to show them their secret spots where the best mushrooms grow, or, depending on the time of year, the raspberry or wild strawberry fields. A farmer may also provide you with fishing tackle, take you in a boat to good spots to fish, and even light a fire to cook the catch.

Rural tourism creates many new jobs. Even now, it employs around 5,000 people. Neighbours also take part, by selling produce or pieces of folk art. Others rent their horses, or simply lend a hand in doing some work.


A BOAT IS NOT ENOUGH

No two farms are identical. Every farm tries to be special and unique by providing better food, romantic scenic views, or unusual attractions.

“Nowadays a farm offering rural tourism services has to offer something more than just woods, good accommodation and a boat on a lake,” says Antanas Gedvilas, vice-president of the Rural Tourism Association. His farm, located not far from Trakai, is open even in autumn and winter.

Besides the many diverse activities in the summer (para-
gliding, excursions by hovercraft to impenetrable swamps, or horse riding), Gedvilas arranges wedding parties and seminars. In the winter, he organises interesting events for children. Several weeks before Christmas, each day, two coach loads full of children come to his farm, to go down ice slides, to take part in relay-races and to meet Santa Claus.

“Once you have invested a considerable amount of money into the infrastructure, so that your guests can engage in all kinds of leisure pursuit, every ‘blank day’ represents a loss,” says Gedvilas. “Therefore, everyone involved in the business has to find ways of attracting tourists.”

That is why, besides the traditional facilities and activities, he offers unusual ones such as rides in an armoured car from the Second World War, model aircraft competitions, paintball, bird-watching trips, and basic courses in beekeeping, spinning and weaving.

If guests like to gather wild berries and mushrooms, they will be able to preserve them for the winter. They can also visit a naturopath, or learn some folk remedies.


AU NATUREL

Rural tourism does not necessarily mean a nice log hut surrounded by a manicured lawn, with a well-equipped sauna, satellite TV and gold-plated bathroom taps. In many countries, city dwellers travel to the countryside in search of a natural way of life: ice-cold water drawn directly from a well, chickens scratching around a farmyard, meadows full of flowers that do not get picked and where you can walk barefoot.

In Lithuania, as in other countries, more and more people from urban areas are choosing country holidays in order to show their children what a real cow, sheep or turkey looks like.

However, most are attracted to the countryside to rest and escape from the noisy city life. They also want to spend their holiday without bothering about housework or cooking. Therefore, natural farmsteads are being designed first of all for passionate nature lovers and foreign tourists, who long to taste the natural and untouched country lifestyle.

It is good when the owner of a farm has something to show his guests: how butter is made and put on the table each morning, how nets are put down in a lake, how honey is taken from beehives, or how newly mown hay is spread out for drying.


SHARING THE TABLE WITH GUESTS

It would be difficult to imagine Birutė and Valdas Danilevičius wanting to move back to the city. And not only because he worked as a forester for many years. They have become well established on their farm in Miškiniškės, located in the lakes area of Ignalina, in the Aukštaitija National Park. They started a serious rural tourism business, and try to look at things from a wide point of view.

“The idea of rural tourism has taken root in Lithuania,” says Danilevičius. “The time has come to present it within the context of the whole countryside, where holidaymakers can experience a lifetime of memories, and even change their lifestyles.”

Their home is a complex of many structures, built over 12 years on the foundations of a former farmstead. The guest houses and the main house are made of strong logs, and are covered with thatched roofs. Materials that match the rustic surroundings, antique furniture (chests of drawers, solid rustic beds) and Dutch tile stoves, were chosen when creating the interior. Modern technology is used only for the amenities and energy systems.

The family do not keep farm animals. They buy milk and vegetables from neighbouring farmers. However, the reindeer, fallow deer and boar that wander in the enclosures bring an element of exotic charm, and are a source of great amusement to visitors.

“We suggest that the countryside of our forebears, which some European countries have lost, should be protected and restored. We should start reviving the countryside while traditions are still alive, instead of looking for totally new models plucked out of the air,” Danilevičius says.

The guest houses, with all amenities and log fires, lack only rooms for storing and preparing food. The centre’s structure makes its residents meet at the same table several times a day, and not only for meals. They also share their impressions and feel part of a big family.

When at the end of the year the hosts invited former guests to come and take part in a carnival, 70 families came, despite the snow-covered roads.


EVERY CLOUD HAS A SILVER LINING

After Rimvydas Bajorinas lost his managerial job in Kaunas, his life unexpectedly changed for the better. He and his wife Kamilė bought a house in the countryside that had been built in the first half of the 20th century, in the district of Ukmergė, and they started a family holiday business.

“You will probably not earn millions in this business, but it can support you. You can even earn enough to put something back into the business,” she says.

“The most important thing is that nature has changed our way of life. We start the day by exercising and taking a swim in the river, and spend the rest of the day in the open air. I consider it a godsend.”

At the beginning they had to do all the jobs themselves: to mow the grass, chop wood, heat the sauna and fix things when they broke. Now they have a helper.

They enjoy life in the countryside so much that Bajorinas has turned down several attractive job offers in Kaunas.

A former actor, Romanas Savickas, is also pleased with the change in his life. When 16 years ago he bought an old homestead on a slope near a lake in the Trakai district, he could not imagine that one day the place would be so full of life.

Renovating the buildings with his own hands, equipping the house with amenities and rebuilding the sauna by the lake, Savickas realised gradually that his farm could provide him with a living. His wife and daughter live in Vilnius, and come to help him only in the summer and at weekends, when the farm is full of guests.

Most revisit the farm time and time again. People say that those who try Savickas’ sauna once will soon come back for more. His traditional farm can accommodate no more than five families at a time.

“Even though we have a lot of space, the main aim is to allow people to enjoy solitude and freedom,” he says.
Several families can stay in the hosts’ house, eat at the same table, and engage in lengthy discussions on rainy evenings. No room there, however, quite equals the romantic wedding suite on the second floor. If you keep the window open during the night, an owl might pay you a visit. The suite has a small balcony, from which you can watch a family of storks nearby in their nest.


WHICH DIRECTION?

“In order for vacationers to enjoy their country holidays,” says Sirusienė, “they need not only well-equipped shower facilities but also good roads.”

The biggest problem that holidaymakers encounter is finding the way to the farmstead. Therefore, this year the Department of Tourism will put up about 1,000 new road signs. This is only the beginning: there should be at least ten times more.

The general tendency is for guests to become more and more demanding. On the one hand, they want the real countryside and a quiet atmosphere; on the other, they want to stay only in accommodation with all modern conveniences.

Despite its rapid growth, rural tourism is only beginning to look like a real business sector. Up to now, only 2 per cent of customers have been foreign tourists. This year, 40 foreign tour operators, from Great Britain, Canada, Sweden and France, have shown an interest in rural tourism opportunities in Lithuania.

In addition, the Lithuanian Rural Tourism Association has established an office in the Czech Republic, which has already signed up 800 tourists interested in country holidays. A similar office was established in Milan on the initiative of Italian tour operators.

“There is a possibility that those in rural tourism who now offer various other services, besides the quiet country atmosphere and scenic surroundings, have spoilt their customers,” says Sirusienė.

“Some holidaymakers demand hot-air balloons, Jacuzzis or tennis courts. We may find that we are making a fundamental error in order to meet the demands of the market, by encouraging farm owners to introduce ever new and better amenities.”

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