Linas Jegelevičius for the BNN
“In June last year, we had 122 Belarusian visitors, and the number surged four-fold this past June to 698,” Alma Slaboševičienė, Palanga Tourism Information Center’s (PTIC) senior manager, told BNN.
Some 250 kilometers eastward, the buoyant resort town of Birštonas is also catering to much more numerous Belarusian guests.
“They make a significant part of the tourist flow this year. Belarusians stand behind the 15-20 percent increase in the tourist traffic to our town this summer,” Rūta Kapečinskaitė, director of Birštonas Tourism Information Center, told BNN. “They are infatuated with the lush greenery here and admit they feel as if being in a different world.”
For many Belarusians, who until now chose Russian resorts and particularly Crimea as their holiday destination, Lithuania has been, in many senses, an eye-opener of a completely new world, the TIC representatives claim.
Some Belarusians come together with their entire extended families. It is not unusual during these hot July days to see sauntering in Palanga a young couple with the mother walking a three-year-old and an older couple behind them and two relaxed septuagenarians in the back. One doesn’t need a keen eye to tell they are members of a closely-knit extended family.
“Indeed, this summer the Belarusians have been a very nice discovery for all us here. Unlike some of the Russians, they are low-maintenance, humble and very curious, perhaps the latter is their distinctive characteristic,” said Slaboševičienė.
Nagging Russians, modest Belarusians
Russians, Latvians, Poles and now Belarusians are Palanga’s driving force this summer, but for many local entrepreneurs the influx of Belarusians has meant a nice windfall.
“They are good money spenders. Very curious, though, modest and sometime a little shy,” a waitress in the central Basanavičius promenade describes the clientele.
Anticipating the boost of tourism from Belarus as a result of the Crimean secession, PTIC has ramped up its presence in Minsk this summer by sending a Russian-speaking employee to work jointly with the PTIC’s 15-year partner, travel agency VokrugSveta.
“The decision panned out well. Belarusians are happy to obtain from our representative first-hand information,” the PTIC manager noted.
Meanwhile, the Centre’s statistics on Russian visitors has tweaked upwards this summer a little bit so far – from 1402 PTIC visitors last June to 1500 walk-ins this June.
“Many of the Russians are seasoned travelers who know the service peculiarities. They expect nothing but excellence when it comes to service. Some waiters, I heard, complain they sometimes are rather hard to please,” the Palanga TIC representative revealed.
But on the whole, all are happy with the scorching sun rolling in the sky and the flour-like sand fondling the bodies, she notes.
As a rule, the Centre sees considerably more walk-ins during a rainy day, and then the Slavic tourists mostly inquire about an indoor water pool, according to Slaboševičienė.
Palanga authorities ponder building a 10-million-euro Aqua Park and some 40-million-euro geothermal SPA within the next four years.
“This is feasible and we aim for that,” Šarūnas Vaitkus, Palanga mayor, told BNN.
Lengthy and trying visa application procedures
But few Lithuanians perhaps are aware of the dignity-bruising experiences the Eastern neighbors are subjected to in the Lithuanian Embassy in Minsk, other Belarus consulates and – having been lucky to receive the visa – at the border.
The story of Natalia, a Minsk businesswoman, who shared her story with the Lithuanian media, epitomizes what her compatriots often have to go through to muscle their way to Lithuania.
As a private person travelling to Lithuania, she needs to personally submit her travel papers to the Embassy. But before that she has to get registered on a special website. It can take ages to receive notification that the talon – otherwise a scrap of paper, but a key document for getting into the Lithuanian Embassy – is ready.
“That people wait for their talons up to a month, or longer is one thing. But insistently checking the status of application can ruin travel plans, as the website system may take you for an automatic spammer. The more stubborn with the system you are, the more suspicious and less effective it is,” the businesswoman told.
With the coveted talon in hand, one is supposed to appear at the Embassy an hour or two prior to the appointment time.
But at it, a crowd of some 300-400 applicants is usually pounding the pavement upon arrival. God forsake, she wrongly appraises the flow of the line and is late for the interview with the Embassy officials.
This would strip her of the hard-fought right to enter the Embassy premises and, in that case, she’d need to start all over again – get on the site once more.
But the “technicalities” are not what annoys her most.
“We see Lithuanians as Europeans. But the Embassy officials’ approach to the visitors has not changed at all over the last five years,” insists Natalia. “I’d expect them to show much more respect, but now their communication often sounds like giving a lecture what we are supposed to do or not.”
Having passed the Embassy hurdles, the worst still awaits at the Belarusian-Lithuanian border.
“I always receive nice treatment on the Belarusian side. But the way some of the Lithuanian border guards perform their duties is obnoxious… Once I missed the lane that I was supposed to use as a car driver and got behind a truck that obstructed my view to the point I couldn’t realize I was standing in the lane for trucks… Before I realized the mistake and got into the right lane, I saw a female border guard running to me and shouting… She was nearly hysterical and threatened with a huge fine. We got away with a fine of 75 litas (31 euro), but had to wait another two hours in the right lane,” Natalia told.
Lithuanian authorities admit that visa issuance procedures can be trying, but insist that a range of measures have been performed to improve the situation.
“We have been gradually increasing the number of consular workers at our Belarus consular establishments depending on the flow. Now we have four more people working at them since last winter,” the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry statement said.
In summer, around 1,100 visas are issued daily at the Lithuanian Embassy in Minsk, and as many as 110,513 visas were given out over the first half of 2014.
This makes an increase of 6.8 percent compared to the same period last year, the Ministry says.
Foreign Ministry promises improvements
That the online visa application procedures are tough, the Foreign Ministry agrees, but explains that the excessive measures are needed to ward off multiple hacking attempts. If crooks ever succeeded in hacking the site, it would impede the issuance of visas indefinitely, the officials say.
Acknowledging, however, that the extra employees cannot handle the increased volume of visa seekers, the Lithuanian Ministry is set to outsource visa issuance service to an entrusted provider in Belarus.
“Currently, we are carrying out procedures of its selection and winner should be known in the beginning of September. After we sign the contract, new visa centres will considerably alleviate visa issuance in Belarus,” the Ministry says.
Meanwhile, Giedrius Mišutis, the spokesman for the Lithuanian Border Service, encouraged those unsatisfied with the treatment at the border to file a complaint.
“All border guards wear identifying badges with their names and capacity. Should one deem the border officials mistreated anyone, the person should inform the Service about that,” the spokesman says.
He also notes that many travelers tend to violate border control rules.
But the border nuisance can hardly scare off thousands of Belarusians yearning to feel “a whiff” of Europe, something they find in Lithuania.
Nor can Lithuania afford to skip the opportunity to profit from the influx of Belarusians, who leave, on average, 150 euros during their 3 to 4-day visit.
So the interest is mutual.