Balneotherapy is an integral part of the Lithuanian health system
We recently talked to Nijolė Dirgičienė, the mayor of the Birštonas municipality in Lithuania. She is also the president of the Lithuanian Resort Towns Association, a member of the Local Authorities in Lithuania, ALAL Board Member and a member of the Council of Europe Congress, as well as one of the most active political figures of Lithuania.
Q: You have been involved in the Lithuanian Resorts Association since 2007. What were the most important milestones for the Association in these years?
Over the years, great efforts had to be made to achieve the recognition of the uniqueness of the Lithuanian resort towns. The Association of Lithuanian Resorts is the core, while all our resort towns are different and have their own face. Although our country’s resort towns are an integral part of Lithuania’s image and tourism, the specificity and uniqueness of these areas are still not sufficiently taken into account. Over the past 16 years, we have been able to join forces to gain recognition for the common issues of resort towns. Together, we all prepared the “Draft Law on the Sustainable Development of Lithuanian Resort Towns”, which establishes a general line on how resorts should develop in harmony with the environment, social changes, while using our infrastructure and natural resources efficiently. We are already waiting for the consideration of the draft law in the Parliament of Lithuania and we are sure that its adoption will benefit not only resort towns, but also for Lithuania as a state in general and the country’s residents themselves.
We are also particularly proud that today the benefits of natural resources and the need for scientific research are no longer in doubt. There is political will and common understanding, but we all have to find tools together to implement research and lead the Lithuanian balneology sector to new heights.
Recently, we received the recognition of German statutory health insurance funds for the reimbursement of outpatient health services in Lithuanian spas. This is an extremely big step for our country, towards which we have been working for many years. However, we understand that this is only a motivational tool, and the biggest work is still in the future.
The problems faced by resort towns and resort areas are recognized, and in many cases solutions are sought. We are making great efforts so that resorts and resort areas have even more opportunities to develop, renew, increase attractiveness and at the same time contribute to economic growth of the country.
Q: How important are the economic impacts of medical and spa tourism in Lithuania and what are the other multiplicative effects for your country?
Balneotherapy and medical & spa tourism is an integral part of our health system and economy, contributing significantly to the strengthening of Lithuania’s competitiveness and GDP growth.
Currently, the tourism sector in Lithuania generates about 4% of GDP. We are ready grow and to contribute even more significantly to the country’s economic growth. The positive impact is felt not only by the resort towns themselves, our sanatoriums, medical spas, but also by elastically related economic sectors – institutions and businesses working in the sphere of accommodation, catering, service organization. Our resort towns and medical spas are the special gems of the country – they generate the largest tourist flows after the big cities. Let’s say, a third of Germans and Latvians and even 66 percent of nights spent by Israel tourists was given specifically in our resort towns in 2022. The potential is considerable, but we can and are capable of offering and providing resort recreation and balneotherapy even more widely.
Q: How do you see the further development of your association and where do you see its potential in the future?
At the moment, the full potential of Lithuanian tourism sector is not being used, it is about 4%. GDP. Resort towns in general are ready to provide even greater benefits to the country’s economy than before – of course, this requires the help of the state itself.
Lithuanian resort towns are ready to compete with other European countries with their quality of balneotherapy treatments and tourism services. Therefore, we will continue to work together to increase the flow of incoming tourism and investments in the resort towns themselves.
Q: In your role as a Mayor of Birštonas, one of the renowned spa towns in Lithuania, what are your goals and priorities to further develop and promote medical and spa tourism?
Historically and culturally, Birštonas is one of the oldest resort towns in our country. We have a beautiful history and we are very proud of it. We always highlight balneology as the most important value of our city and we will never lose it. Our goal is to make balneology even more attractive and accessible, to educate visitors, to give them a real touch of natural resources, to awaken people’s awareness in a contact with nature, mineral water. We want every visiting tourist, whether it is a mother with a baby or an elderly couple, to feel the power of nature, to inspire, to make them rethink their values (habits, diet, etc.). We develop the city in such a way that natural resources can be tested in the fresh air – after simply taking off your running shoes, wade through the mineral water and perform the “Kneipp coffee” ritual, breathe in the steam of the mineral water at your leisure with a book in hand and try forest bathing. We believe in this philosophy and develop the resort town based on these values. We believe this is our strength. We are constantly developing the infrastructure of the resort: expanding the network of bicycle paths, reconstructing parks and squares. In the near future, the construction of a pedestrian and bicycle bridge over the Nemunas river is planned. Spa complexes are being developed in the Birštonas resort town, more and more quality catering and leisure services are being established. We are also proud of our exceptional natural values – we are a green resort town, developing in this path.
With time and the right evidence, Balneology can replace pharmaceuticals and help people
Q: What are the main challenges of medical, spa & wellness tourism in Europe?
We are facing too little attention to balneology and spa & wellness tourism and its development, lack of financial instruments for the resort towns’ development and balneology research. These elements are extremely important, some countries implement them more widely and consistently, while other countries are still looking for ways of solutions and financial opportunities.
The current post-pandemic situation has clearly shown how important immunity is. To strengthen it in European spas, we use centuries-old healing traditions, the natural wealth of the depths of the earth – mineral waters, mud – and apply it to innovative uses. High pace of life, stress leaves a clear mark in today’s society, especially among young people. Balneology can serve well in this context – we are sure that with time and the right evidence it can replace pharmaceuticals and help people.
Q: Sustainable tourism and regenerative approach are hot topics nowadays. How successful is health and spa tourism in this field and what can be done to reduce the negative impact on the environment?
This is fundamental part to the development of today’s resort towns. Nature protection is becoming an increasingly important part of our lives, and there is no doubt that we must make as much effort as possible to make tourism sustainable, protecting the environment and nature. Both the resort towns themselves and the businesses operating in them have been taking all measures for quite a long time to reduce the footprint of their activities on the environment. We are moving to ecological development solutions, we are promoting green energy and transport. We see that people themselves are much more aware, but we must not forget to constantly educate them and offer them sustainable alternatives at every step they take.
Q: How do you see the role and importance of the European Spas Association? Which should be its main activities to help its members?
Each partnership in the association or organization is important to the extent of how much of your expertise, attention, and contribution you put into its activities yourself. ESPA has been an irreplaceable partner for the Association of Lithuanian Resorts for many years, we participate in all the activities, actively cooperate in the ESPA contact network. We see meaning and result in this cooperation. More and more of our members and their partners discover ESPA events, e-library, we notice a desire to be involved in its activities and grow.
Q: Which are the innovations in your members’ spas that you are most proud of?
The medical spas operating in Lithuania resort towns are creating unique health and wellness programs after Covid, which help not only to strengthen immune system, but also to restore the body. We hear from many partners and clients that our medical spas do not resemble the environment of regular health care institutions: they are like “boutique” hotels where you can find the most innovative and personalized service.
Of course, our medical spas are full of the latest high-end equipment: cold chambers, hyperbaric oxygen therapy, sleep capsules, the most innovative devices for examining body data. Medical spas pay a lot of attention and invest into this.
Q: Which are the treatments in the Lithuanian spas that one should not miss when visiting Lithuanian spas for the first time?
Our uniqueness is mud and mineral water procedures. We could single them out as part of our culture and traditions as well. Although trends change, new tools and equipment appear, but mud and mineral therapy is always what sticks in the memory of visitors the most. The Amber spa therapy, performed in one of the medical spas in Birštonas is a set of unique procedures that help to use the energy of amber accumulated over millions of years to improve human health. Flow therapy, which has no analogues in the Baltic countries, is also worth trying – it uses mineral water containing 70 active mineral elements: in just 20 minutes in a state of weightlessness, the body absorbs as many trace elements as it would not receive in any other form!
Lithuanian medical spas perform many unique procedures, so everyone will find one that suits them, all you have to do is listen to your body’s needs.