Lithuania's Schengen entry hits Belarusian shoppers

28th December 2007, Comments 0 comments

Every weekend, buses packed with Belarusians invade the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius.

Vilnius (dpa) - Every weekend, buses packed with Belarusians invade the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius.

They come to Lithuania to shop, see the sights, and experience a friendlier customer service than they would find in their native Belarus.

But the days of easy entry to Lithuania are numbered. And as they draw to a close, Belarusian bus services are hard pressed to find seats for all the travellers who want to shop in Vilnius before it is too late.

"I wanted to make my last trip before prices for visas go up and I won't be able to afford it any more," Natasha, a Belarusian tourist who declined to give her last name, told Dpa.

On December 21, the small Baltic nation of Lithuania became one of nine EU members, mainly in Central and Eastern Europe, to join the EU's Schengen zone of passport-free travel.

And as of that date, Belarusians like Natasha will have to dig far deeper into their wallets if they want to go shopping in Vilnius.

Before, Belarusians wanting to enter Lithuania - which shares a 680-kilometre portion of the EU's outer border with Belarus - have to pay 5 euros (7.39 dollars) for a temporary visa.

But when Lithuania joined the Schengen zone, they now have to pay as much as 60 euros for a visa valid across the entire bloc, said Lidija Bajaruniene, a foreign affairs expert at Lithuania's state department of tourism.

"It's difficult to say what the impact will be, maybe fewer tourists from Belarus will be coming to Lithuania," she said.

Lithuania and Belarus are currently ironing out an agreement to lower visa costs for Belarusians who live near the border, so that they will be able to cross into Lithuania for just 15 euros.

The two sides hope to seal a deal by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, Belarusian travel to Lithuania has been booming.

Last year, Lithuania's two diplomatic missions in Belarus issued 157,000 visas, the vast majority of which were short term. The most recent statistics provided by the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry show that by the end of October this year, the missions had already issued 133,000 visas to Belarusian nationals.

Earlier this month, Belarusian web-based travel companies were offering a two-day, one-night Vilnius weekend package for as little as 50 euros - or 10 euros less than the price of a visa now that Lithuania joined Schengen.

And while a Schengen visa gives the bearer the right to travel freely throughout the border-free zone, from the Greek islands to the glaciers of Iceland, Belarusian travel agencies fear that it is their short-haul weekend breaks that will pay the price.

"We don't know what will happen then," an employee of a Minsk travel agency told dpa on the phone, declining to give out her name. "We'll definitely continue offering trips to Lithuania, but the question is how much they will cost and how long they will last."

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