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The Palin effect

Tour operators who are predicting a boom in travel to the Baltics created by the phenomenon that has become known as the 'Palin effect'. have been disappointed.
Michael Palin the famous globe-trotting former Python legend, recently visited the three Baltic states to give the world an insight into these little known countries with his latest TV series. The chino wearing Palin's recent travel guide "The New Europe" showcases former communist countries.
Palin's quirky excursion through the three Baltic States did not seem to do justice to these fascinating countries. The episode is called "A Baltic Summer" although there is nothing luminous about this particular adventure. Summer in the Baltics is vibrant, full of people and exciting. It is daylight all the time and people are out and about en-masse. His portrayal seems better suited to the winter time, bleak and completely lifeless, although in his more in-depth book by the same name, Palin seems to get a better insight into the three countries than in the short episode.

The Lithuanian are not at all happy about how their country was depicted. There is a general feeling that it was portrayed negatively with somber background music and that Latvia and Estonia came off better.
Contrary to what many might think, it is not Palin who determines who and where he visits on his travels. A director and location manager set up an itinerary for the crew to follow, but most of it is a surprise to Palin until he is actually on site.  This keeps his responses fresh and spontaneous; to really show his true impressions, as is evident from his apprehension and horror of a leech treatment in an Estonian Hirudotherapy Clinic. Palin appears to be a lone traveler but he travels with a whole entourage of stylists, managers, runabouts and camera men.

Palin travels from Estonia in the north, through Latvia, to Lithuania in the south. "Western Europe was over visited, but the east, the half of Europe that used to be concealed behind the Iron Curtain, was much more promising. It also fulfilled one of the main criteria for my choice of journey, being somewhere as new to me as it probably would be to most of my audience." Palin said of his new adventure.
From Palin's 1991 travel documentary Pole to Pole, he describes his first impressions of Tallinn: "Rising around soft brown city walls are the spires, turrets and towers of a medieval city, but the docks present a dejected picture. In marked contrast to the bustling cosmopolitan harbor we left three hours ago, our only companions on the Tallinn waterfront are rusty-hulled colliers and cargo ships in need of a coat of paint. All bear the hammer and sickle on their funnels. The immigration forms are faint Xeroxes, and as there are long queues to process them I go back to take a last picture of the Georg Ots. A car pulls up almost instantly and a soldier gets out and eyes me with contempt."

And in his New Europe "The last time I saw the Estonian coastline was in 1991 – technically the Soviet Union back then. Even at a distance I can see signs of the great change that has overtaken Estonia. The old spires and towers now have competition from a clutch of modern skyscrapers. "
In "The New Europe", Palin hangs out with some spiritual well-to-do hippies in Estonia who live in a countryside pyramid house and walk over hot coals.  Palin then catches up with Jaan Manitski, Abba's former business manager and Estonian arts patron. He visited a woman doctor from the Russian minority for some leach treatment where leeches were applied to his chest for medicinal purposes.

In Latvia, Palin travels on local transport to the far removed town of Ape. So far removed, that this particular train consists of only one carriage and a few yokels. Palin then celebrates the summer solstice festival "Jani" in pure traditional style, oak wreath and burning wheels, with renowned folklorist Ilga Reizniece. Back in Riga, his interview with celebrity chef Martins Ritins is more of an insight into what the US president likes to eat. Palin finishes off Latvia with a visit to one of the most secretive places of the Communist-era, a radio telescope.
In Lithuania he briefly visits the Hill of Crosses in Siauliai, he drops by the former KGB headquarters and torture chamber and on the streets begins his own "singing revolution." His Lithuanian adventure culminates at the fascinating Curonian spit.

Tour operators have been disappointed that there has been no significant 'Palin effect'. Phil Teubler from Baltic Holidays in the UK told City Paper "I didn't think I would get much extra response from the Palin effect and I haven't. I don't think you can criticize Michael Palin though. He interviews people and is interested in their quirkiness. I don't think his Baltic program was particularly strong in promoting the area,  although he's not getting paid by the tourist boards so that's not his job to promote the place.  His show about Poland was great and consequently people will want to visit there.
"The effect these shows have is a slow drip effect. Seven years ago when I started the company  no one knew much about the Baltic States. Now at least people know where the Baltic states are and with Michael Palin going and the BBC recently airing the Royal Family's Estonian visit, tourists now say 'Let us go as well'."

More likely Lithuania's tourism will be boosted by the "Amazing Race" effect, with the country recently appearing in a leg of this popular American reality racing game. Contestants race to various world destinations and compete in completing tasks. Vilnius was seen in a very positive light: still quirky and interesting, but colorful and charming, a really attractive tourist destination. A summer solstice event with folkloric characters and performers was showcased at the Open Air Museum. The producers even managed to make the hectic traffic look fun with one contestant exclaiming "My God I have never driven in such chaos," and another pair of contestants had a near miss with a local trolley bus. The old town's University and the little old ladies speaking English showed just how refined and accessible the country is.

What's most important is that these programs show that the Baltic states are a cultural and political extension of the world instead of seeing eastern Europe as a mysterious backwater. Fun, interesting places to visit where you can see something new, interesting and different.

 By Larisa Medene