Russians flock to Baltics for Orthodox Christmas

Russians flock to Baltics for Orthodox Christmas

In stark contrast to the reviled Soviet takeover which saw Moscow subjugate Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania from World War II until 1990-91, despite frosty official relations the EU Baltic trio are now rolling out the red carpet for Russian tourists.

In the three capitals, hotels with special packages for Russian visitors in the run-up to Orthodox Christmas Day on January 7 are nearly fully booked.

According to the Gregorian calendar, Orthodox Christmas falls 13 days after the December 25 Western feast celebrated in line with the Julian calendar.

Baltic state consulates in Russia have been flooded with requests for tourist visas -- on December 10 alone, the Latvian consulate in Moscow received more than 1,150, a record that required extra staffing.

Enterprise Estonia's tourism guru Tarmo Mutso expects about 70,000 Russians to visit over the Eastern Orthodox holiday period.

"We are pleasantly surprised by how good the services are and how well we have been treated, although we were told Estonians might not like Russians," Muscovite Marina Nikonova, whose family rented an apartment in the Estonian capital Tallinn for eight days, told AFP.

"All our shopping malls have become Christmas markets for the Russians," Jolanta Benuliene, the city's tourism chief in Lithuania's capital Vilnius told AFP.

With the aroma of mulled wine and cinnamon buns wafting through the old town squares of Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius, Christmas markets there will stay open for last-minute Russian shoppers until Epiphany, or January 6.

Elena Dulepova, a 26-year-old tourist from Moscow, has paid several winter visits to the Latvian capital, Riga.

"Everybody understands Russian and it's only an overnight train-ride from Moscow," she added, complaining a little about the 35-euro ($46) Schengen visa fee for entering the European Union, of which the Baltic trio all became members in 2004.

Druskininkai, a spa town in southern Lithuania which offers services in Russian saw the number of Russian tourists soar by 44 percent in 2011-12.

"The growth is due to a good price-to-quality ratio and the absence of a language barrier," Rimantas Palionis, a local tourism official told AFP.

Pointing to the 18 billion euros Russians spend each year in the EU, Russian President Vladimir Putin recently urged Brussels to drop visas for his countrymen.

While the three Baltic countries stand to reap great economic rewards, leaders remain cautious about further opening their borders to unlimited numbers of visitors from the east.

bur-mav-mrm-frj/mas/rt/boc