Linas Jegelevičius for the BNN
Few summers please sun-worshiping Palanga restaurateurs and hoteliers, but this year’s high tourist season in Lithuania’s Baltic resort has been the worst, ever, they insist. Late summer crowds, so usual for the time of year in the lush resort, are nowhere to be seen and scarce saunterers on Palanga’s main promenade are idle and penny-pinching.
«Indeed, as an old resident of Palanga, I don’t think I have ever witnessed so few people in mid-July, the peak of Palanga’s high tourist season. Behind the slowness is the euro adoption», is convinced Bronius Martinkus, a department head at the Palanga municipality. He added: «During the first year with the euro, people cosied up with it and continued spending out of inertness. It was as if wearing a pair of rosy-colour glasses, but with the money petering out, all started being very cognizant of the new situation in the wallets.»
Yet the usual summer bustle would have not gone anywhere even with the euro if not for the continuously rainy days and weeks on the Baltic coast.
A Lithuania meteorologist has observed that this summer, over a span of nearly two months, only a dozen of days have remained dry round the clock.
A short summer downpour with following thunderstorm is refreshment for all in Palanga, but when it rains cats and dogs for days is truly unbearable.
«The euro coupled with the weather has wreaked havoc in many vacationers’ plans. On the other hand, those who made it here could obtain cheaper accommodation and food. Again, because of the weather,» Martinkus said.
Approached in mid-July, Alvydas Meškys, owner of Gamanta Hotel in central Palanga, sounded upbeat despite the prolonged rain throughout the month: «I hope that August will make up for murky July.»
But now, with the month of August counting last days, the hotelier is sombre: «Unfortunately, the summer has not been what we expected. But that is how Palanga is – summers are very different here.»
Although the hotel’s occupancy, despite the soaking rain, is this summer on the level of last year’s but this is owing to 40 per cent lesser hotel prices this summer, the hotelier says.
«In August last year, I’d charge around 80 euro for a standard double-bed room and I had to slash the price to 45-50 euros this August, a result of tepid bookings,» Meškys said.
According to him, most of the guests came from Belarus, Estonia, Latvia and, surprisingly, there were more Russian tourists.
«Russians are coming back, slowly but steadily. I chalked it up to the improving economic situation in Russia. Perhaps the people have overcome the biggest burdens amid the stand-off with the West,» Meškys pondered.
Speaking to Palangos tiltas, the newspaper published in Palanga, Nastasia Žutautaitė, head of Gabija Hotel, pondered in July that behind the slower than usual summer lies geopolitical tensions.
«Holidays in Turkey are less costly this summer because of the fallout from the conflict between Russia and Turkey. It is plausible that part of Lithuanians, who would usually come here for their summer holidays, chose Turkey instead,» she reasoned.
Many of local artisans, like Vytautas Šlepavicius, the vendor of amber articles, grumbles that the summer is only loss-making.
«The summer is in no comparison to any other in my memory. There are way fewer passers-by; just June was abundant with people. Most of the time, I’d sit behind the stall only for a few hours. No business at all,» the craftsman complained.
Before, he says, Russians would buy up most of his amber jewelry, but with them gone, the business has been slow.
«Russians were very curious and we would engage in long talks about the artworks. Now I have nobody to talk to. The Belarusians, whose presence is larger this summer, do not even cast their glance towards my stall,» the Palanga resident lamented.
Another artisan noted that, with fewer Russians around, there are more tourists from other Slavic countries, Belarus and Ukraine.
She, however, also praised Russians: «They had money and were eager to spend it. Not the other Slavs who skimp on everything,»
Usually very blunt, Irena Švanienė, the chairman of Palanga’s private accommodation sector-representing organization «Svetingas šeimininkas», claimed there has been «very little» of summer this year.
«Only June has drawn more tourists than usually. July was rainy and August is wet, too. Altogether, I think that people starting to come to grips with the euro. Last year, many would be quite reckless with it and, this year, many are having a sobering reality check,» the hotelier told BNN.
In her words, what before the euro adoption cost one litas, already the defunct Lithuanian currency, now the price for the item is one euro. The purchasing power has decreased,» she emphasised.
Although Palanga has made envious strides in developing its infrastructure lately, the resort lacks a spacey indoor amusement facility, where the tourists could flock while it rains, Švanienė notes.
For Vaidas Šimaitis, a Palanga entrepreneur and councilman, the visible decline in tourist flows this summer besides the other reasons is about Brexit.
«In the wake of Brexit, many Lithuanian UK emigrants double think whether to go on holiday amid the weaker British pound,» he told BNN.
But Eligija Smilingienė, interim director of Palanga’s Tourism and Information Centre, tends to downplay the local entrepreneurs’ «whimpering», saying that the centre’s figures on Palanga visitors shows the opposite – an increase in the tourist traffic.
«But they do not perhaps represent the real situation, as we usually have more walk-ins when it rains. The worse weather is the busier it gets at our office,» she claimed.
The situation will be clearer when Palanga wraps up its season in mid-October.
Asked to break-down the tourist traffic, she says that there have been fewer Russians in Palanga this summer, but the numbers of other Slavic guests were picking up.
«Especially, we could talk of an influx of Belarusian tourists, as well as Ukrainians, a result of the direct flights with Minsk and Kyiv,» the tourism centre head explained.
Germans, Scandinavians, Poles, Latvians and Estonians were also abundantly mingling in Palanga, she says.
Smilingienė quips that no summer is up to the local businessmen’s expectations.
«Hearing the whining, I think maybe some of the hoteliers and restaurateurs ought to check their business strategy. Maybe some need to think of how to advertise differently? If you were to look around, you would always spot some cafes bustling with the others nearby semi-empty,» she noted.
Meanwhile, the Palanga Municipality also rebuts the entrepreneurs’ claims over the disastrous summer, insisting that the authority has collected more local fees this summer than a year ago.