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  Vol. 16, No 1, 2008
Changing Times in Tourism

Author:
Aleksas Apynys

People like to travel, so it is good times for the tourist industry. Lithuania has rapidly built up its tourism and service infrastructure. Citizens looking to holiday abroad can very easily do so. Travel agencies are abundant, and you can even buy tickets on the Internet. As it stands, this year will be the best travel year ever for Lithuania, and next year should be even better.

But … the industry is fickle. One international crisis can destroy a country’s tourist industry in one fell swoop. One cancelled flight can scupper a vacation completely. Inflation, fuel prices, and extra security precautions can also have an effect on a traveller’s choice. And for local travel agencies, the Internet has made its presence felt, and has become a competitor, much to their chagrin.

And then, there is a country’s reputation. For instance, does it provide good service? Does it compare well with other countries? Does it have nice places to stay and things to do? Does it really know how to take care of its visitors? 

The people involved in the local tourist industry deal with these questions. For a country whose tourist industry is not yet 20 years old, the result is pretty good. Lithuania has found its niche. 

 

Making do with what you have

Despite a lack of truly monumental geographic wonders and four full seasons in which half the time the sun is never seen, tourism in Lithuania has grown at a rate of five to 15 per cent every year since 2004, and this is no accident. Indeed, what the visitor will find is a more intimate collection of tourist sites from Vilnius’ famous Old Town to Baltic Sea beaches (and everything else in-between), attracting throngs of visitors during the peak summer season. This has been the driving force in building up the tourism infrastructure, almost from scratch, required to house, feed, entertain and keep visitors visiting for as long as possible. For instance, in 2001 there were 231 hotels of various types, whereas in 2007 there were 345, and the prognosis for 2011 is 435. 

On the other hand, the off-season lasts a long six months, and these sights, formerly filled with tourists, alas, reluctantly settle down for their winter nap.

With the idea of extending both the length of stay for tourists and the tourist season itself, Lithuanian tourism gurus have focused their approach using a well-respected business principle: adjust, adapt and innovate.

 

On the bandwagon

After the reestablishment of independence, curiosity about Lithuania began in earnest. However, with the few hotels and restaurants left over from Soviet times, visiting was truly for the adventurous type. Things really took off as the country prepared to join the European Union.

Lidija Bajarūnienė, currently head of foreign affairs at the Department of Tourism, fondly remembers those times.

“When I started five years ago, I was the first person to handle public relations, as there was absolutely nobody responsible for PR. The push to join the EU was a very active, very busy and very interesting period for us here.

“We made many presentations abroad, and I remember always being on the phone and answering queries like: ‘Lithuania? Where are you? What’s your location? What’s going on there?’ And so on.

“We had to think, then, how to present the country, how to collect news and data, and present it as a tourist destination. We received many journalists from everywhere, and many visitors. In 2003 we joined the United Nations World Tourism Organisation, a very big organisation. Lithuania was first to join from the Baltic States, and, first, we organised the opening of the Geographical Centre of Europe. That was the beginning of the boom times for new hotels offering good services.

“Before, we didn’t have nearly enough good restaurants. But today, you can compare: restaurants and hotels are fully booked. The key is that Lithuania today is not just strictly for cultural tourists, but also for business, conferences, rural tourism and health spas.”

 Having historic sights is a great start, but taking tourism into the big league requires more than just excursions. From adventure, day-tripping and stag parties, theme camps and health spas, to bicycling and driving tours, all these are being evaluated, and in many cases, applied.

The results? Lidija explains further.

“Five years ago, the Department of Tourism started a competition for the most successful tourist project of the year. This contest was organised to encourage tourism opportunities, innovation and initiative, as well as to improve the image of tourism in the country.

“We have eight different categories, like best hotel, best restaurant, best tourist attraction, and so on. And, to our pleasant surprise, it has been very competitive. For instance, this year, when we were collecting the most successful projects of 2007, applications came in from very large infrastructure objects: the Druskininkai Water Park, the Vilnius Water Park, the multi-functional arena in Šiauliai. Huge places, huge buildings are applying, and choosing the winners became very difficult.

“This reflects one of the new tourist trends, incentive tourism, as more and more people are coming to do things like visit water parks, and in this way, people discover Lithuania.”

 

Staying in business

With over 200 separate travel agency offices, you never have to walk far to find one in Lithuania. Many are chain operations, some are local, and all rely on just a few airlines that control over half of the flights in and out of Lithuania. Airlines themselves, competing for customers, have their own websites and encourage people to use them, as if to say, “Why go to a travel agency?” For all the travel agencies, big and small, this has become a sort of angst.

Žydrė Gavelienė, director of the Estravel Vilnius agency, explains the benefits of using a travel agency. “Companies are trying to save by not knowing how much they’re losing. They don’t think about how much an agency saves them money.

“If you have a meeting in Brussels, for instance, what expenses do you have? You have the flight, you have the hotel, meals, and conference facilities, transport to and from the airport. All these things are separate invoices, and all invoices must be sent to accounting and dealt with, whereas an agency sends but one invoice.”

Indeed, cyberspace, the answer to so many questions, has become more than that. It has become a travel agencies’ competitor. Booking tickets on-line has grown at such a rate in the last few years that travel agencies, no matter how big and powerful they are, found themselves having to scramble to find ways to stay in business.

And though not all were able to weather this storm, many have found an answer. A two-part answer mainly: offering services that cannot be offered on the Internet, and focusing on business travel.

“It was maybe not so long ago that we had a fifty-fifty split between business and leisure,” explains Andrius Sidaravičius, director of West Express, the largest travel agency in Lithuania.

“But on-line booking came into vogue three years ago, and we had to somehow position ourselves. We had to make a decision which way to go: we could go with the cheap transaction side, or go corporate. We could be a ticket printing house or a travel-financial advisor. So we went corporate, but also we created an on-line booking engine for cheaper transactions.

“Booking on-line can only do so much. It doesn’t provide a service, you can only buy. When it comes to making changes, reissues, delays, and things like this, you cannot talk to your monitor.

“You have to solve problems yourself. In this situation, it’s better to be a corporate customer, where there’s twenty-four-hour help in place.”

This trend towards corporate travel has proven a boon for local travel agencies, and one travel agency, Kaleva Travel, now deals almost exclusively with business clients. Rasa Barisienė, general manager of Kaleva Travel, explains the tricks of the corporate travel trade.

“We deal with corporations, not people coming through the door; although, of course, we serve any client coming into our office. The best way to deal with corporations is to know their rules, their traditions, what they like, what they don’t like, which hotel they prefer, what room they like, which airline to take in order to save money …

“We take care of the whole trip, from beginning to end, not just selling tickets, but what to do after that. We have very good tools, on-line tools, which help clients to save money on their accounting, and we are helping to organise travel policies.”

Expanding its activities in the sphere of on-line services, Kaleva Travel has recently acquired the Bilietai Lt system for reserving and buying plane tickets.

 

Winter weary

In winter, you can travel from Vilnius to the seaside, rent a house for a week, buy food and drink, and hopefully find a restaurant nearby that is open. Or, for the same price, you can spend nine days in Turkey, in a four-star hotel, with two meals a day, and it is guaranteed that you will see the sun and swim in the sea.

A winter vacation in Lithuania used to be, at the least, an oxymoron, and at the most, only for the brave of heart. It is well known in these parts that a cloud settles over the country some time in November, and does not leave until May. And you can experience more hues of grey than in any part of the world this side of Iceland. But the spa has come, and today this is one of the most popular winter attractions, especially during the holiday season (so book well in advance).

It was not always this way. For instance, when the first water park opened in the health resort town of Druskininkai, people came, but to their slight irritation, they discovered there were few places to eat and few hotels to stay in. Now they are building more, as well as more attractions. A new indoor ski resort is in the works, but this time the supporting infrastructure is also planned.

The key is to have more attractions. As people all over the world are looking for places to pamper themselves, Lithuania has high-quality places to offer, and this is one way to prolong the tourist season. The Department of Tourism is sponsoring events in resorts that target the off-season.

 

And the latest…

Tourism development in Lithuania has targeted cultural heritage objects and secure-areas to meet native and foreign tourist recreation and leisure requirements. The economic tourism sector’s development targets are people, especially young people, to increase employment opportunities and revenue, create new tourist business niches; and to attract private investment and regional economic and social developmental questions and solutions. One important tourism stimulation task is to form a more energetic Lithuanian tourism image and tourist information facilities, to create a more catchy tourism brand-image.

Last year, Lithuania, along with Latvia and Estonia, developed the “Baltic Marathon”, a sightseeing route throughout the Baltics in which you received a passport with 36 different cultural objects, with the idea to get a “passport stamp” from each place. A national auto tourist route and water activity route is under way.

A Phare project, the West Lithuanian Bicycle Ring, which was described by the European Commission as a “unique project”, has been completed. And, for the future, a new route for pilgrims, John Paul II’s pilgrim route, and the Second Baltic Marathon.

The European Union has been very supportive of the Lithuanian tourism industry. In 2005 and 2006, EU structural funds funded 59 tourism projects, worth 118 million euros. From 2007 to 2013, it is estimated that countryside tourism projects will probably receive 351 million euros. Also, from January to September in 2007, accommodation in Lithuania took in 1.4 million people, of whom 687,000 were foreigners, 14 per cent more than in 2006.

In 2009, Vilnius will become the European Capital of Culture, and this may make it the largest tourist attraction in the country’s history. To pull it off, Lithuania will not only rely on its professionals, such as artists, celebrities and famous people, but ordinary people and visitors will also be recruited.

There will be a European Arts programme, a cultural identity programme and a “living history” programme. For the first time, the cultural programmes will implement economic goals: to raise tourism by 15 per cent. For the first time in Lithuania, there will be programmes in which 90 per cent will be totally new. 

Indeed, the local tourism infrastructure has been modernized, adapting through innovation, hard work and timely help from both the government and the European Union, and this has not gone unrecognised. For the first time, in November 2007, the country was elected to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation’s Competitiveness and Marketing Committee, and Lithuania will represent the whole of Europe. So you see, Lithuania is making an impact.

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