JURMALA - As far back as the 19th century, Jurmala was regarded as the perfect holiday destination for foreigners and Latvians alike. Two hundred years on, and the town's coastline is as attractive as ever, while its hospitality industry undergoes a much-needed revival, finding a niche among Baltic resorts.
But despite advances in service and accommodation, the throngs have subsided significantly since the 1980s, when the Gulf of Riga was one of the premier Soviet resort towns. Jurmala has seen a drop in the number of tourists from approximately 232,000 in 1988 to 61,000 in 2002 and then 59,000 in 2003. New visa requirements meant that potential visitors from CIS countries simply could not return to their resort of choice.
But that is gradually changing. In addition to easing rules for obtaining visas for Eastern visitors, Latvia is promoting itself in the West. As the country sits at the geographical edge of the European Union, it can now reap the benefits of "both worlds."
Toufic Kawar, who represents the owner of Kemeri Spa, one of the newest hospitality ventures in the area, was immediately taken by Jurmala's milieu. "It is obvious for any beginner in the hospitality business that this place has a history, has a majesty, a pedigree," he says.
It is exactly for this reason that tourists flock to Jurmala despite the cooler water and the somewhat higher prices compared with other Baltic resorts.
However, with vibrant Riga only a 30-minute drive away, Jurmala's hotels have to compete for guests, many of whom prefer spending evenings in the city after days on the beach. Kawar believes that to keep hold of clients a hotel must first offer them a memorable experience and then build a relationship. This guarantees their return.
"A client means someone who buys into a product more than once - you have a relationship with your client. Our aim is to have clients that come regularly," says Kawar.
Natalie Marsans is working with Deputy Prime Minister Ainars Slesers to promote Latvia as an up-and-coming area for development to hotel operators and foreign investors. She hopes that the current "development of Riga will have a knock-on effect in the countryside."
With some 3 million guests expected in Latvia this year, there should be enough tourism to keep everyone in the business busy. Unfortunately, Jurmala cannot accommodate as many as it would like, as the city still suffers from a lack of available hotel rooms.
Partly to compensate for this, both public and private officials in Jurmala's hospitality industry have been promoting the town's natural resources - one of its distinct advantages over other Baltic resorts. The mineral springs of Kemeri and the mud from the peat bogs in Sloka have always been known for their naturally therapeutic properties. It is thanks to them that individual tourists, who make up 45 percent of Jurmala's guests, come back year after year.
For this reason many hotels are investing in beauty and relaxation treatments as a way of providing tourists with value-added services.
In fact, these natural resources have become so synonymous with the resort that they are key to exporting the Jurmala brand abroad. Kawar, for instance, says he wants "to export the Kemeri product" so that the name of the hotel is "synonymous with spa."
"In Belgium they have Spa - in Latvia we have Kemeri," he says.
In fact, Jurmala's health industry could help it outgrow the off-season problems, which often turn resort towns into ghost towns. With much of the natural resources yet untapped, the Jurmala City Council is "working with entrepreneurs to encourage them to add services and make a product with value," says Armands Muiznieks, head of the tourism and foreign affairs department of the Jurmala City Council.
Kawar also wants to use nature to provide people with a more fulfilling holiday experience. "There is room for eco-tourism. I think that we have become 'techno-sapiens' and forgotten the land," he says. "Hospitality must be a spiritual experience as well as a physical one."
To do this, the owners of the Kemeri Spa Hotel intend to educate and train local people to work in Kemeri. "We want to help young people from Kemeri to study in the hospitality industry so they can become the personnel of the hotel. Latvia has enough educated young people to do the job, they just need some training and experience," says Kawar.
Still, significant investment and public promotion is needed if Jurmula is to succeed in the competitive tourism industry, and officials are well aware of this. "At the moment we are making investor guides to promote the opportunities in Latvia," says Zane Zelenkova of the Latvia Tourism office. "Hopefully the political and financial support we have will stay the same, and the Economy Ministry has agreed to increase the budget to promote Latvia to tourists and investors."