RIGA - Getting visitors to leave the capitals has always been one of the Baltics' major problems. Blessed with three UNESCO-listed cities a few hours' drive apart, their tourist economies have always circulated around these gems. At present, according to Gundega Zeltina of Latvia Tours, "the absolute majority of foreign visitors comes to Latvia to see Riga," and the same pattern holds true in Lithuania and Estonia. Now, however, a series of local initiatives is beginning to challenge the three capitals' traditional dominance.
So spa, so good
Visitor figures for 2004 make impressive reading. The Baltics are currently enjoying a tourist boom, and in all three countries, regional destinations have seen numbers rise. In Estonia, the proportion of guests staying in Tallinn dropped below 50 percent of the national total for the first time. In Latvia, rural tourism centers saw a 31 percent increase in visitor numbers. Total figures for Lithuania are not yet available, but the spa town of Druskininkai saw a 34 percent rise. According to Zeltina, "Rural tourism is now developing much faster than the cities."
The driving factor in this development has been local investment. Druskininkai is a traditional spa town, but according to Egle Brazauskaite, marketing assistant at the town's Spa Vilnius, "after independence the Russian tourists stopped coming. For a long time, tourism stagnated."
Then, in 2000, the newly-elected municipality decided to reinvigorate trade. With a combination of municipal and state funding, they took over and restored one defunct spa and invited private investors to operate the others. At the same time, local business magnate Viliumas Malinauskas opened his now-famous Soviet Sculpture Park. Privately funded, this memorial park displays a wide range of Soviet statues amidst historical displays and children's play-grounds. Five years on, the town is booming: over 90,000 visitors last year, with hotels full every weekend, even during the winter. It is a testimony to how much local initiative can achieve.
The same can be said of Estonia's Saaremaa, where tourism is also booming. While the island has always been famed for its natural beauty, it now also boasts four new spa centers.
"Thanks to the spas, we have customers all year," said Karmen Poja, manager of the Kuressaare tourist information center.
Last year Saaremaa saw 300,000 tourists, and the number is expected to rise this year with the opening of a ferry line to Ventspils. All four of the island's spas are Estonian-owned, three of them belonging to a Saaremaa native. As in Druskininkai, local effort is breeding local success.
Meanwhile, Latvia's coastal city of Ventspils is not far behind. According to Kristine Tjarve of the Latvian Tourism Development Agency, "Ventspils aims at family holidays," and the city council has invested impressive amounts in family-oriented attractions: the resort now boasts a children's playground, a water amusement park and a skate-board park. In addition, private capital has doubled the number of hotels over the last three years.
Elsewhere in Latvia, local investors are also ringing the changes. Liepaja has developed its Karaosta prison into a tourist attraction, allowing visitors to sample life as a Soviet gaol-bird, while the Gauja river has seen a number of water-sport centers open up.
The spa business also looks set to change. In February Janis Berzins, the entrepreneur behind Stender's soaps, announced plans to open four hotels across the country, offering a range of spa treatments and beauty projects.
"All Latvian families like the way [Berzins] does things 's it's always in very good taste," says Zeltina, and if the success of Berzins' soap factories is any guide, these four hotels are likely to be only the beginning.
Everybody needs good neighbors
It's not only local enterprises fueling the boom: across the Baltics, local tourists are serving as the backbone for the regional revolution. While the total number of visitors in Druskininkai has risen 34 percent in the last year, the proportion of Lithuanians has risen from 60 percent in 2003 to over 72 percent in 2004. According to the Lithuanian Statistics Bureau, 102,700 guests stayed in rural homesteads last year, and of those, only 12 percent were foreigners. A similar story has developed in Saaremaa, where 56 percent of visitors last year were Estonian. In Latvia, meanwhile, 59 percent of all guests in rural lodgings were from within the country, and in Ventspils - 80 percent.
Local tourists, however, are not the only factor. If 20 percent of Ventspils' visitors were foreign (up from barely 6 percent in 2002), over 30 percent of those foreigners were from Lithuania and Estonia. The same pattern is true in Jurmala, where according to Tjarve, "At the weekends and in the school holidays, you get a lot of Estonian and Lithuanian bus groups coming to visit [the water attraction] Akvaparks."
In Saaremaa, over 70 percent of foreign visitors are from Finland and Latvia, while in Druskininkai, Poles make up almost a quarter of the total. The pattern is not uniform 's 50 percent of all visitors to Latvia's rural homesteads last year were German 's but the message is clear: in regional tourism, it is the local market and neighbors that count.
A cluster is born
Behind these individual stories one finds a broader pattern: regional operators are becoming increasingly professional in their approach to tourism. In all three countries, state and municipal tourism agencies have initiated educational programs for regional tourism operators, and their efforts are bearing fruit.
"They know what product to offer, and how to present it," says Zeltina.
Driven by this new professionalism, the regions are moving beyond their traditional strengths to create diversified networks of attractions.
"To succeed in tourism, you have to have a cluster of attractions for visitors of all ages," Zeltina adds. "I went to Latgale last summer, and they offer a lot: boating, farm work, handicrafts, pottery, mushrooming, and wonderful unspoilt nature and people."
The same lesson is sinking in across the Baltics. Druskininkai, famed for its spas and Malinauskas' Soviet park, will soon be opening a water amusement park. Saarema has upgraded its historic buildings and is investing in a sports centre, while Ventspils has added surfing, nudist beaches and a sailing cruiser to its list.