Good things come in small packages. This adage has withstood the test of time beyond jewelry marketing. The latest fascinating cultural and geopolitical case study is Lithuania. The Baltic nation of 2.8 million people has been making powerful global headlines recently. In April, it became the first European Union country to sever energy ties with Russia. Earlier, the opening of the Taiwanese Representative Office in Vilnius prompted a historic row with China. Fierce political independence is part of its heritage.
By the late Middle Ages, Lithuania was the largest nation-state in Europe. One of its most iconic landmarks is the Hill of Crosses, a stunning monument to the country’s ongoing fight for freedom. It was the first Soviet republic to exit the USSR. Now, this “Jewel of the Baltics” is embarking on a charm offensive to reintroduce itself on the global stage, on its own terms. The year 2019 set a record for international visitors before coronavirus halted cross-border travel. Destinations beyond the mainstream tourism map are turning to culture and fashion to innovate their offers.
From Napa Valley to the Mediterranean, arts at large are proving to be a significant draw for travelers. Travelers arriving in Lithuania from any country of the world will no longer be subject to any COVID-19 management requirements, no tests and questionnaires needed. Wearing masks is not mandatory anymore, except in medical facilities. With Kaunas serving as European Capital of Culture and Vilnius preparing to celebrate its 700th anniversary, it is a perfect time to consider a visit. To find out more about the latest initiatives, I connected with Olga Gončarova, Head of Tourism markets Department acting as general manager at Lithuania Travel. We talked about what brings people to this corner of the world and how do local creative communities redefine the notion of hospitality for our anxious zeitgeist.
How has Lithuania faired in the post-pandemic tourism landscape?
From 2019 to 2021, the number of inbound tourists decreased by 74%. Pre-pandemic, the market share of inbound and domestic tourism was almost equally split. As strict quarantine restrictions were implemented in 2020, domestic tourism increased, taking up a significantly larger market share. Approximately 79% of Lithuanians opted for extended vacations in their home country. Getting some fresh air in the exuberant forests became especially popular. Berry or mushroom picking, walking on specialized trails through strictly preserved swamps, camping, or just having a picnic near one of many lakes, Lithuanian people rediscovered nature-related activities. Also, during the pandemic, Vilnius became one giant open-air café! The city provided public spaces to outdoor catering establishments for free. Now we are happy to welcome the world.
Lithuania finds itself in a tense geopolitical neighborhood right now. What should tourists know to feel safe during their visit?
As Lithuania is a member of the EU and NATO since 2004, safety is inherently guaranteed. We demonstrate constant support for Ukraine with donations and humanitarian aid. Our nation empathizes with the Ukrainians’ yearning for freedom, and solidarity is really felt everywhere. While a particular amount of uncertainty because of geographical proximity to the invasion may be understandable, ultimately, it is unfounded. I can say with confidence that currently it is safe to work, travel and relax in Lithuania. The European Travel Commission also confirms this status of the Baltic states. We believe that travel builds unity and peace, and fosters understanding between different people. Therefore, we are preparing intensively for the new tourism season.
What is the most surprising or inspiring thing tourists learn when they visit Lithuania?
There are several things mentioned quite commonly by visitors new to Lithuania. Firstly, how much unique nature the country has! The 60-mile Curonian Spit is an environmentally sensitive area that is home to rare and vulnerable flora. Around a third of Lithuania is forestland and Vilnius is one of the greenest cities in the world. Vilnius Historic Centre covering nearly 360 acres was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1994. Despite invasions and partial destruction, it has preserved an impressive complex of Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and classical buildings as well as its medieval layout. It is also one of few European capitals that allows hot air balloons to float over the Old Town. The hot air balloons dotting the sky above the capital every evening have become a symbol of the city. This unique experience is part of many bucket lists. Secondly, people are often surprised to learn that Lithuania was the last country in Europe to convert to Christianity and has many locations that retain their pagan roots. For example, the Kernavė archeological site is on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
People may already be familiar with Vilnius as the capital. What are some of the must-see highlights throughout the rest of the country?
Thinking about our iconic cities, it is impossible to choose a “favorite child,” so to speak. They are all important to Lithuanians but, just like children, they have unique characteristics. Vilnius represents the diverse range of people and cultures. Perhaps, the Užupis district is a true representative of its free spirit. This tiny, self-declared Republic of Užupis began as an April Fools’ Day joke in the late ’90s. It still functions as a hive of creativity and eccentricity. Kaunas is Lithuania’s second-biggest city. Instantly recognizable from its intriguing synthesis of modernist interwar and Art Deco architecture, it has been named the European Capital of Culture 2022. It also has one of the most romantic places in Lithuania. The Pažaislis Monastery is a true 17th-century Baroque diamond protected by the Sisters of Saint Casimir. It was turned into a film set in 2018 for the HBO mini-series Catherine the Great with Helen Mirren. Another small but must-see destination is situated between three lakes. It is famous for a picturesque 15th century Trakai Island Castle, one of a kind in Europe. The port of Klaipėda is the Baltic metropolis, naturally leading a more laid-back way of life. There is a vast number of leisurely activities to enjoy and marvel at the Old Town which has retained the spirit of German functionalist, constructivist, and expressionist architecture. A very active, sports-oriented city, it received an award in 2019 for the most ambitious vision for sustainable mobility in a city with much attention paid to pedestrian, cycling, and public transport infrastructure with proper adaptation for people with special needs. We want to welcome all.
How does fashion factor into the Lithuanian tourism appeal?
Fashion here is often associated with Juozas Statkevičius, the first Baltic designer to participate in the Haute Couture week in Paris in 2002. Another big name is Agnė Kuzmickaitė who is famous for her functional conceptuality and iconic butterfly symbols. Lietuvos Mada by Albrechtaitė-Lingienė Gintarė is a great book on Lithuanian fashion. It contains a plethora of pictures for an international audience. Sustainable fashion is a big trend. This became apparent with the success of Vinted, an online marketplace where people can buy, sell, and exchange new or second-hand goods. It is the first Lithuanian start-up to achieve unicorn status. The Stikliai Quarter in the heart of Vilnius city center is home to some of the most influential jewelers, artists, and artisans in the country. Always intricately decorated for seasonal holidays, this neighborhood also offers a variety of Lithuanian designer boutiques.
To paraphrase an iconic slogan: “Lithuania: is there an app for that?!” How is Lithuania engaging with the digital technologies for the cultural and tourism sector?
The pandemic moved us to rethink our work online and improve user experience. Our website Lithuania.travel is constantly updated with carefully selected information about Lithuanian cultural news. In recent years, both research and digitalization have become crucial for the tourism industry. Open data is a prerequisite for industry growth and a successful transformation process. One of key projects is the Tourism Data Dashboard. It tracks various visitor profile and spending data. Concurrently, an interactive map that highlights the most-visited tourist hotspots is in the works. In 2022, we plan to implement a unified public database of all the local tourist sites (over 14 000 entries) where each municipality can update the relevant information. This would allow tourists to access all the needed details to plan their trip, saving time and reducing stress. The tourism sector is slowly recovering, and we believe that the industry requires novel ways of solving pressing challenges. Lithuania, a country that prides itself on the notion of co-creation, invites innovators to join our TravelTech ecosystem, providing open data and offering conditions for sandboxing ideas that can potentially change the market. We want to provide businesses with the opportunity to pilot these projects in Lithuania in real market conditions in order to scale in the future.
How does Lithuania fit into a larger international arts agenda?
In line with global trends, Lithuania has developed an interest in showing the uniqueness of its cultural contributions. Despite the fact that Lithuania is quite small, it is very rich in ideas known globally. Jurgis Mačiūnas, the Lithuanian American artist, is often regarded as the creator of the Fluxus movement when he proposed the name in 1961. Jonas Mekas was a Lithuanian American filmmaker and poet who was referred to as “the godfather of American avant-garde filmmaking” and frequently referenced by iconic artists like Salvador Dali, Yoko Ono, and Marina Abramović. Another notable contemporary example is the Sun & Sea (Marina) opera by Lina Lapelytė with libretto by Vaiva Grainytė. It was presented during the 2019 Venice Biennale and received the Golden Lion, the exhibition’s highest honor. In addition, Lithuania is home to a bustling gastro scene, full of unique dishes such as kibinai — stuffed pastries — or the iconic šakotis cake which resembles a pine tree. From the food we consume to the remarkable role that nature plays in our environment, Lithuanians place emphasis on authenticity. We have a lot to be proud of and thankful for.