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Russians swarm Lithuanian malls and resorts.

KLAIPEDA - The holidays are gone, but lavish shoppers from the East are not in such a hurry to leave Lithuania. They still swarm Lithuanian malls, marts and markets in search of Western quality goods. This is nothing new, as Lithuania every year enjoys an influx of Eastern buyers for the biggest yearly holidays. What is a surprise is the Easterners' increasing appetite for luxury items, marking the guests' rebounding financial situation.

Renata Jakubcioniene, a representative of Akropolis, the largest chain of shopping malls in the country, says that some foreigners left as much as 700 litas (202 euros) a day in the malls.

She says that Akropolis has seen the most shoppers from Belarus, Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Norway, China, Israel and the United States. This is the usual yearly Akropolis mall crowd, but the big flow of Belarusians, who suffer from their recent economic ordeal, she says, is unexpected.

"The Belarusians' flow tends to increase twice every year, despite the high inflation and the Belarusian rubled evaluation," Jakubcioniene notes.

She says that foreigners start thronging the malls as early as the very beginning of December and trickle out as late as the very end of January. Thus, the inflow draws itself out to up to nearly two months, covering Catholic and Orthodox Christmas, and Israeli Hanukah.

As for Klaipeda Akropolis, most shoppers arrive from the Kaliningrad region, as well as from Israel, Kazakhstan, Belarus and Norway. The Akropolis representative says that Lithuania's visitors usually buy kitchen appliances, clothing, shoes and cosmetics. "We also notice that more of them walk out from our grocery stores and supermarkets, "she says.

Jakubcioniene pays attention to foreigners' large expenditures on Lithuanian amusement and entertainment. "There are many foreigners, particularly from the former Soviet bloc, who come not only for big shopping, but also to get on the ice at the Akropolis skating-rink, or go bowling. This shows foreigners' changing habits. Now people tend to combine shopping with amusement and entertainment," Jakubcioniene notes.

She calls the trend "natural," saying that Lithuanian habits and shopping priorities have also changed in a similar way in a span of 15-20 years. During the holiday season, Siauliai Akropolis has also seen a larger crowd of shoppers, as for Latvians residing in the border region it is more reachable than Riga. In winter, compared to spring and summer, the Akropolis malls, the representative says, see a three-fold increase in customer turnover.

Last December, the malls saw a 10 percent shopper increase, year-on-year. In Vilnius, foreigners make up about 1-2 percent of all Vilnius Akropolis customer turnover.

Birute Kalanovaite, director general of Panorama, a large shopping mall, says that Belarusian and Russian buyers have been the most active during the holiday season. "The purchasing power of Russian tourists has increased particularly rapidly," she noted. Among the most sought-after products, as previously, were shoes and clothes. These kinds of goods made up 70percent of all purchases, she says.

Businesspeople from the two largest Lithuanian resorts, Druskininkai and Palanga, also were pleased over the holiday crowds at the resorts. The statistics say the Lithuanian Embassy and Consulates in Russia have issued 17,100a Shengen visas for Russians this year, a nearly 2,000 visa increase from last year. Belarusians were also among those to have received this kind of visa by the Lithuanian Embassy in Minsk: 13,100 this year.

Druskininkai restaurateurs and hoteliers had already predicted a large turnout of winter holiday guests in summer, and they turned out to be right. Investments into the infrastructure of the resort, resulting in the opening of the Snoras Snow Arena, which was the resort's biggest project in2011, are paying off, bringing large winter sports-hungry foreign crowds. "The interest in our hotels was so big that we had to choose whom to give the rooms," says Modestas Vitkauskas, a representative of the leisure complex Grand Spa Lietuva. He says both hotels belonging to the group, Druskininkai and Lietuva, have been fully booked for the holidays, and the guest turn-out was nearly100 percent.

"Seventy percent of the guests were Russians and 15 percent were Lithuanians," Vitkauskas said.

In the New Year's banquette, he says, the evening hosts had to show some loquaciousness in several languages, including Russian.

Palanga hotels also enjoyed complete bookings for the holidays. A large part of the New Year's revelers were Russians, says Ala Valuziene, director of Palanga Tourism Information Center.

"The number of Russian tourists has been going up steadily for quite a few years, regardless of the season. We expect the Russian airline company RusLine will respond to the increase and start flying to Palanga three times a week, instead of one," Valuziene told The Baltic Times. The airline had planned to increase its flight frequency last summer, but low bookings deterred it from doing so.

UTair, a Russian airline, has also expressed its willingness to fly to Palanga next summer. Audrone Ambrozaitiene, a hotel owner in Palanga, says that the New Year has been "amazing" this year. "I had not hiked up hotel room prices this year, as I was quite pessimistic about a possible turnover of customers. But my cautiousness appeared to be unfounded. The hotel was full, with the room prices ranging from 140 to 280 litas per room. The prices have not scared away celebration-thirsty people," the hotelier said to The Baltic Times.

Travel consultants at the Moscow-based Lithuanian travel agency Travelita wiped off the sweat during December in at tempts to please the swarm of Russians planning to spend Christmas and New Year's holidays in Lithuania. According to Nina Dolgovskaja, the agency head, the flow of Russians willing to celebrate2012 in Lithuania has surged 2.5 times this year. "We have also had a larger number of collective requests for travel document arrangements this year. Already in mid-January we were notable to make any booking in the Lithuanian resorts. Just before the New Year, with booking cancellations turning up, we could offer some hotels, but those who sought holiday time in Lithuania had already come up with other options," Dolgovskaja said.

"Most of our clients were intending not only to celebrate in Lithuania, but also to get some treatments at the Druskininkaiand Birstonas sanatoriums," she added.

"Most of the Russians we spoke to pointed out that Palanga is more attractive to them only in the summer," the travel business representative said. She says many Russians came to Lithuania well before the New Year, desiring to feel the spirit of a Lithuanian Christmas. "Many of them, however, returned to Russia disappointed. They complained that they could not rent a car, and found many restaurants and stores closed during Christmas. I had to explain to them that Christmas is a family holiday for Lithuanians. They seemed to be surprised, pointing to Turkey, which dances according to the Russian tune," Dolgovskaja noted.

Russians still can be spotted wandering in the wintery Palanga adozen days into 2012. "We enjoy the quietness and the serenity," they say. Some of them miss the leisure amenities Druskininkai has, though.
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Title Annotation:Business
Author:Jegelevicius, Linas
Publication:The Baltic Times (Riga, Latvia)
Geographic Code:4EXLT
Date:Jan 11, 2012
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