According to Statistics Lithuania, 14,156 Israeli tourists visited Lithuania last year, twice more than in 2013. The number of Lithuanians who visited Israel through travel agencies went up from 614 in 2012 to 986 last year.
Real numbers, the ambassador is “convinced”, are much higher. According to him, Israel number-18 country in terms of toursit flows to Lithuania.
The upward trend in tourism, he insists, should be credited to the recently opened low-cost flight route between Tel Aviv, Israel’s factual capital, with the Lithuanian capital Vilnius.
“But in the larger picture, the invigoration is about the new level of our cooperation. This really makes me happy. The potential for tourism between the countries is big – there are around 200,000 Israelis whose roots go back to Lithuania in some way,” the ambassador pointed out.
Having arrived in the Israeli capital last August to take over the reins of the Lithuanian embassy, he says he was caught in the lingering gloom after clashes between Israel and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.
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Bagdonas says he had to run for refuge many times during his stay in Israel.
“Sometimes even several times per day. One morning the sirens caught me jogging along the streets of Tel Aviv and I had to race down the street to the nearest shelter,” he admitted.
But such life on a constant edge irks only foreigners who are not familiar with Israel.
The Lithuanian Embassy has recently moved to the very centre of Tel Aviv and shares a fortified building with the embassies of South Africa, Belgium and Austria. There are many other embassies and consulates within a short walking distance.
“For Israelis, sirens and warnings have long become part of daily life. Most of the facilities, like underground parking lots, can easily be turned into shelters. Needless to say, there is a shelter in our embassy building and in the house where I live,” the ambassador revealed.
Still, the precarious security situation does not seem to deter hundreds of Lithuanian tourists from visiting the Middle Eastern country.
“It has just become very cosy to visit the country with the direct flights available. It boasts a cosy schedule and the three-and-a-half-hour flight is nearly always fully booked,” Bagdonas notes.
With the Lithuanian Government set to bring the relations between the countries to a new golden age, culture and commerce attachés have been added to the Embassy’s staff last year. Now it employs 11 people.
And the results are tangible: Israeli commodity imports to Lithuania have doubled over the last two years – from 10.8 million euros in 2013 to 20.4 million euros last year, according to Statistics Lithuania.
Lithuanian exports to Israel has been quite steady over the last couple of years.
“I am sure the bilateral trade volumes will be only growing in the future. If we manage to keep up the current air route connecting the countries, and probably add a few more, outgoing and incoming tourism will rise dramatically,” Bagdonas is convinced.
Most of Israeli businesspeople are usually pretty young, well-connected and well-to-do – not to mention very technology-savvy.
“Israeli business associations are very strong and influential and keen on our best high-technology start-ups,” the ambassador emphasized.
Around a hundred Israeli students, according to him, are enrolled in Lithuania’s best universities.
The Lithuanian ambassador, however, cautions that Lithuania has to make an extra step forward in meeting often demanding and picky Jewish tourists.
“Indeed, they are choosy about where to stay and what to see around in Lithuania. Obviously, we still need to better heed the peculiarities stemming from their faith. I do not know any restaurants serving kosher food in Lithuania. Just recently, in a big tourism conference, I heard that such an establishment might pop up in Vilnius soon,” Bagdonas said.
He adds: “These kinds of things have to be taken into account without delay if we want to see the Jewish tourist flow continue streaming.”
Lithuania can take cues from Poland and Latvia how to accommodate Israeli guests, he believes.
Some tourists from Israel, Bagdonas concedes, are extremely sensitive to history.
“It is all understandable. It is estimated that 90 percent of the pre-war Jewish population of Vilnius have been annihilated during WWII. The issue of the Holocaust is not forgotten and it still sometimes sours the relations, alas,” the ambassador admitted. “We have to do everything to mend the fences and build new bridges into the future.”
And indeed, much has been done in this regard as Lithuanian-Israeli commissions, committees and other institutions having mushroomed lately.
The first meeting of a commission appointed by the Lithuanian Government, bringing together various governmental officials and Jewish representatives from the Lithuanian Jewish Community and international Jewish organizations, took place in early May and the ambassador lend his hand to making it happen.
The high-profile meeting mostly focused on four topics: first, the long-term protection and preservation of Jewish cemeteries and mass graves of Holocaust victims; second, specific plans to restore a number of synagogues and other places of Jewish heritage; third, agreement to have Lithuanian children better instructed on the history of Lithuanian Jewry; and, fourth, the issue of Jewish private property.
Most of these issues will be addressed within the cooperation plan, currently in works, between YIVO, the Institute for Jewish research, and the Lithuanian National Library and State Archives.
The Institute has just marked its 90th anniversary.
“There has been much effort lately aimed at expanding relations between the two countries. Personally, I’ve spoken to Lithuanian Jewish Community Chair Faina Kukliansky on multiple occasions and there is mutual understanding that the cooperation must go deeper and further,” the ambassador says.
Speaking about his Israeli counterpart, Amir Maimon, the Israeli Ambassador to Lithuania, Bagdonas says Lithuania could have hardly expected a better diplomat for the position.
“I am very happy and proud of the ambassador. His exuberance, professionalism and competence are commended by all. He will definitely be a boost for the Israeli-Lithuanian relations. Even through the sports: the ambassador is an avid basketball fan and follows matches between our best teams,” Bagdonas told.