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  Vol. 13, No 3, 2005
A Port of Call

Klaipėda is being added to cruise itineraries

Nika Aukštaitytė

This spring, on 14 April, a passenger ship called unexpectedly early at Klaipėda port. The Norwegian tourists on the Nordnorge were met by a thick fog and a brass band.
The occasion opened the third season of arrivals of cruise passengers, the number of whom has been growing rapidly. In 2003, 9,000 people arrived by ship. Last year it was 14,000. Meanwhile, this year’s forecast is for over 20,000 tourists.

Coastal Lithuania, which is historically referred to as “Klaipėda land” (Memelland), attracts many travellers with its rich cultural heritage and unspoilt nature. Many are amazed to find the Curonian Spit, a sabre-shaped slice of land separating the sea from the lagoon, with majestic dunes of soft, white sand.

Wilhelm von Humboldt claimed that to see the Curonian Spit is necessary for a man, just like seeing Italy or Spain, so that “the spirit no longer hungers for beautiful views.”

When they are in Nida, tourists drop in to the Thomas Mann House. There he wrote his novel Joseph and his Brothers.
The writer was fascinated by the fragile and ephemeral beauty of the spit, and wrote: “What is there left for the poor poet from these things that are materially tangible and poetic at the same time? I recall one piece of scenery that has grown deep into my heart over the past few years, and that is the Curonian Spit.”

Tourists are also drawn by the Amber Museum in Palanga, which was founded in the former palace of Count Feliksas Tiškevičius. The museum is surrounded by a well-kept park, which is the work of the French landscape designer Edouard André.

The Old Town, Tarava Anikė Square and the old flea market in Klaipėda are also worth a visit.

Out of bounds

Before Lithuania regained its independence, Western tourists were not allowed to visit Klaipėda, says Miglė Holliday, who runs the Meja Travel tourist agency. Officially, they were only allowed to visit Vilnius and Kaunas, and it took a special KGB visa to get into the port city.

“The first cruise ships started calling at Klaipėda in 1992,” she says.

“Most of the passengers were Memellanders, of an advanced age, from Germany, looking for signs of the past. They would bring along old maps, and asked to be taken to where their house used to stand.

“The vessels had to moor in the freight docks. Often there would be a crane moving huge sheets of metal over the heads of passengers disembarking from the ship. A branch of a freight railway crosses the area of the port.

“On coming back after a tour, tourists would sometimes not be able to find their ship, it would be blocked off by coal wagons that had just arrived in the port. It was almost impossible to expect much in the way of development of cruise tourism under such conditions.”

On the up

For the third season in a row, liners calling at Klaipėda dock at a specially constructed quay. So far, it is just an empty patch of cobblestones; but it keeps changing, as numbers of tourists grow, thanks to Klaipėda’s geographic location, the port’s active marketing strategy, and the efforts of the Tourism Information Centre.

This year, the services on the quay were upgraded by the provision of taxi services, a public telephone, a letter box, and a tourism publications stand. In the near future, it is to be equipped with a cash machine, an Internet café and a coffee bar.

This year, 62 cruises are expected to call at Klaipėda. The estimate for next year is 100. With the prospect of attracting more, the town was featured in one of the world’s largest exhibitions, the Seatrade Cruise Shipping Convention, that takes place annually in Miami, the capital of the international cruise industry. This event is usually attended by representatives of cruise companies from all over the world.

Lina Gudelionytė-Gylienė, head of the marketing section at Klaipėda State Seaport Authority, is excited by the city’s new contacts with cruise lines such as Carnival Cruise Line, Silversea Cruise, Norwegian Line and Radisson Seven Seas Cruises.

“The cruise industry is booming. Even higher growth is forecast for the future,” she says.

“The annual growth in turnover is 8.5 per cent. Shipbuilding companies feel this and are investing fortunes. Twenty new ocean liners are to be launched by 2007. I hope they will be calling here as well.”

Incredible hulk

This year, the biggest ship ever to visit Klaipėda, the Constellation, with American tourists aboard, is scheduled to anchor at the port three times. The 294-metre-long liner, owned by the American company Celebrity, accommodates around 1,950 passengers. It is the seventh biggest ship in the world.

It needs good conditions to be able to enter the harbour at Klaipėda: a wind no greater than 8m/s and visibility no less than two nautical miles. So far, the longest liner to enter Klaipėda harbour is the 201-metre-long Mona Lisa.
Americans, who vacation two or three times a year, deserve to be called the best-travelled nation. In the last five years, 44 million Americans have taken cruises. Statistics show that from 15 to 20 per cent of cruise passengers take cruises regularly. They have explored and exhausted the Caribbean and the Mediterranean, and would like to see something new.

Experts think that the future for the Baltic ports is bright, because it will bring in floods of tourists in the foreseeable future. In 2003, 68 cruise ships left the Mediterranean for the Baltic, and 25 ships arrived from the coast of the USA.

The eastern region of the Baltic Sea has a reputation for being safe. It has a rich history and culture, and beautiful natural sites. It is attractive ecologically, and even gastronomically. At the same time, it is the region least explored by cruise navigation.

“We have invested thirty million litas in the passenger ship terminal, and cannot afford to sit on the coast hoping for ships to turn up,” Gudelionytė-Gylienė says. “More promotion is needed, as well as more information on the conditions for cruise shipping in Lithuania.

“We went to the Miami exhibition for the first time, where everybody knows everybody else. However, we felt there was a great interest in the coast of Lithuania. But we would like to encourage this interest further, until the line marketing groups include us in their routes.”

Only here for the beer?

Klaipėda, with its population of 200,000, is the northernmost ice-free seaport on the east coast of the Baltic Sea. It receives annually around 7,000 ships from 45 countries.

A liner docks for a whole day. Tourists are offered several tours to choose from. Klaipėda’s Old Town, and the Amber Museum in Palanga, surrounded by a beautiful park, are the most popular with tourists.

Meja Travel handles almost 80 per cent of arriving tourists. According to the director, these two tours are usually selected by the English and the Americans.

“The English are keen to see parks and gardens. Of them, 90 per cent choose this tour.”

The Germans have retained their love for the Curonian Spit: 80 per cent take a day’s tour of the spit.

Other popular choices are the bird ringing station at Ventės Ragas, and an authentic Lithuanian village. This offers a glimpse of the farmer’s life and work before industrialisation, when cows were milked by hand and a horse-drawn plough was used for tilling the soil.

This year, a new tour to the Lithuanian Sea Museum has been added to the list. Passengers on the Nordnorge took this tour and found it very interesting. Scandinavians take a great interest in the cultural heritage, and the museum is situated in an old Prussian fortress which houses a large outdoor collection of historic ships.

Tourism agencies offering services for tourists prepared their programmes a year in advance. Yet they only get a day’s notice of the actual figures of tourists opting for a tour before the ship arrives.

Holliday says that a fifth of the tourists opt not to join any group, and explore the town on their own.
“This tendency is getting stronger, especially among the Westerners,” she says.

“They find mixing with the local people and having a cup of coffee in a quiet corner of the Old Town a very valuable experience. People arriving from large cities enjoy the peace and quiet of our town.”

One other thing that undoubtedly attracts the tourists’ attention and praise is the good-quality, cheap beer. Few can resist this temptation.

“After a tour, the answer to my question about what they liked best is always the same, ‘the beer’,” laughs Loreta Rimkienė, a guide who has been working with tourists from cruises since the beginning.

One passenger, 50-year-old William Colin, said that, besides having a good rest in Klaipėda, he also saw something very special: the beauty of coastal Lithuania.

“Also, your coffee bars are cool, the beer is great and the women are simply stunning.”

“This is my second time in Lithuania,” said Horst Shuster, 64, a camera in his hand, ready to capture all the charm of the Lithuanian coast.

“Last year I visited Kaunas, a beautiful town. Now I am looking forward to seeing the Amber Museum in Palanga, and the coast. I saw it on television, and it looked great.”
Nikolaos Giannakopoulus, the captain of the Mona Lisa, was in high spirits.

“I want to get to know your people and learn more about your culture. So far I only know your basketball players. Some time ago, when I was in America, I met Šarūnas Marčiulionis, who had played for the NBA.
“Do I know Sabonis? Everybody knows Sabonis! All America knows him!”

Stop and shop

“We do not have exact data on how much money a tourist spends in Klaipėda.” Romena Savickienė, the director of the Klaipėda Tourism Information Centre, says that passengers disembarking from ships spend on average 300 litas (87 euros) a day.

“We should bear in mind that they do not stay overnight, nor even eat, except maybe for a small snack. In Western ports, tourists spend on average 300 dollars a day.”
All the tours have very tight schedules, so any delay causes concern. But visitors are always glad to buy some amber jewellery, linen and postcards.

If you can’t beat them, join them

With the aim of attracting more tourists to the Baltic Sea, a partnership project has been initiated to bring together 12 ports, Klaipėda, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Helsinki, Turku, Rostok, Oslo, Kalmar, Gdynia, Riga, Tallinn and St Petersburg. The budget for the project is 1,231,000 euros, and the financing is provided by the EU Interreg IIIB Programme and partners.

The project is divided into four parts: cooperation between separate cruise networks, theme routes of the Baltic region, public relations strategies and implementation, and promotion and participation in specialised exhibitions. A joint website is being created, and a film will be made.
There are plans to set up a cruise centre in each of these port towns in order to ensure connections between the separate parts. A common set of standards to be applied to the services is also on the way. This will ensure that all the ports in the Baltic create the same conditions for receiving vessels and their passengers.

Klaipėda is new to this business, and finds it difficult to compete with St Petersburg, Tallinn or Riga. These towns are the main attractions on the east coast of the Baltic.
On the other hand, the tough competition challenges us to use some ingenuity in creating new tourism products and to show something that cannot be found in the big towns, like bird-watching in the Nemunas delta, or some special piece of the industrial heritage, like Soviet farm machines.

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