VILNIUS — To quote Dickens: it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
With Vilnius’ year as European Capital of Culture coming to a close, it’s clear the long list of festivities and cultural programs failed to attract more tourists to the largest Baltic state. Recurring headlines about embezzlement and wasteful spending tarred the reputation of the Vilnius — European Capital of Culture 2009 group tasked with coordinating events. However, organizers say a long-term impact on the country’s cultural scene will be felt, as events and activities tried for the first time this year could blossom into new traditions and that the city’s increased international exposure could foster a future upswing in tourism.
The economic crisis, which hit Lithuania among the hardest of any country in the world, was a major obstacle in the way of bringing more tourists and their foreign currencies into the coffers of local businesses. The figures show this obstacle was not overcome. According to the Lithuanian Department of Statistics’ latest room occupancy rates, the 2009 numbers from January to September show a 21.8 percent decrease from the same period in 2008. Instead of celebrating, hotels spent the year protesting value-added tax increases on top of lower occupancy rates. Meanwhile the collapse of Lithuanian national airline flyLAL made Vilnius more expensive and inconvenient to reach as direct flights to most of Europe’s major cities were eliminated.
Evalda Šiškauskienė, president of the Lithuanian Hotel and Restaurant Association, points to a lack of marketing abroad by the government promoting Lithuania as a tourist destination during the Capital of Culture year.
“On tourists’ map of the world, there is no positive image of Lithuania at all,” Šiškauskienė told Baltic Reports.
Vilnius — European Capital of Culture 2009 Director Rolandas Kvietkauskas agreed that marketing was not properly executed. Kvietkauskas is the event’s second director after the first, Elona Bajorinienė, was forced to resign in February 2009 amid amid allegations of corruption and embezzlement. The prosecutor general’s investigation into the project’s finances under Bajorinienė’s watch is ongoing.
“We could not use the tools to promote the city, the marketing … due to budgeting cuts,” Kvietkauskas told Baltic Reports.
In addition to advertising, the cuts also forced the cancellation of numerous events that had been under consideration which Kvietkauskas said would have further enriched the year’s schedule.
Legacy may prove project’s success
However, even if it wasn’t enough to bring more visitors this year, Kvietkauskas says that the program has increased international awareness of Lithuania’s historic capital.
“For the first time we could say we had very concentrated information, very planned information to the outside world,” Kvietkauskas said. “I think Vilnius became more known. This was a goal.”
He also asserted that new ideas this year would make a lasting impact on the city’s cultural scene.
“We had a number of new ideas which really found their place,” Kvietkauskas said. “Like the Street Musician Day, the Vilnius Opera Festival. We were trying to go into the spaces that were not used before for cultural things, like the railway station, like the bus station, like the river. We saw a lot of possibilities for investing in young artists.”
In the meantime the Vilnius — European Capital of Culture 2009 debt problem is being resolved, as the Vilnius municipality has agreed to cover the outstanding debt accrued in 2008.
“Actually, what we have still from 2008 is debt which is approximately €150,000 but those questions are on the way to being solved and we see that it depends on the municipality and how they will cover those debts,” Kvietkauskas said.