RIGA - On a sunny day in August, I set out to find tourists in Riga's Old Town. Anyone who has spent time in the old town recently knows that this was a task as simple as blinking my eyes. Everywhere I looked, camera toting, backpack-carrying visitors ambled around with a look of wonder and sometimes bewilderment in their jetlagged eyes.
As I eyed the amassed hoards, it reinforced the fact that Riga truly is becoming a hot spot for Europeans seeking something close to home, but a bit out of the ordinary. A visit to the tourist information center in Ratslaukums confirmed my suspicions 's Riga is seeing a boom in tourism.
In the last couple of years, the number of visitors coming to the city for vacation and relaxation has increased noticeably. This may be due in part to EU accession and the resulting increased awareness of places like Latvia, Malta and Cyprus. This may also be due to the new air carriers that have made Riga a spot on their low-cost map of Europe. Whatever the reason, visitors have arrived and their numbers aren't likely to decrease anytime soon. Madara Suskevica and Baiba Pigozne from the Riga Tourist Information Center say that they are seeing visitors from new areas of the world that haven't traditionally visited Latvia in the numbers that we see now. Suskevica told me that the latest group to arrive in Riga this summer has been from southern Europe. It seems the visitors from Italy and Spain have been arriving in numbers larger than ever before and many of them have told her that the idea to come to Riga came about after Latvia joined the European Union. A visitor from Italy, Pietro Magnani, confirmed this to me when I spoke to him. "We wanted to see the new Europe," he told me as he photographed his wife in front of the Freedom Monument.
Almost 100,000 people walked through the doors of a tourist information center in Riga last year looking for maps, places to stay and general advice on what to see and do in the city. The staff works hard to accommodate all of the visitors. Collectively, the group who works there speaks Latvian, Russian, German, French and English. This range of languages seems to be able to serve the needs of the majority of visitors, but Suskevica laughs and says that at times, sign language also helps.
I asked Suskevica and Pigozne to tell me some of the challenges that they face with the increase in tourism. They immediately respond unanimously: "accommodation." Summer in Riga sees a shortage of places for tourists to stay. "We have a real challenge finding places for people to stay sometimes," Suskevica says. "I have sometimes wanted to offer the floor of the tourist center as an alternative," she laughs. They go on to explain that the problem is the opposite in the winter when hotels are looking for customers to fill the beds. For now, tourism in Riga is very seasonal and the season of choice is summer.
Another challenge has been to convince some locals that tourism is a good thing. It seems that there are still some people out to make a quick buck and tourists, Pigozne explains, sometimes get taken advantage of. She describes one scam this summer where certain money exchanges gave litas rather than lats. "The exchange rate difference is significant, so you can imagine the surprise when a tourist realizes he has 100 litas instead of 100 lats." Both women grimace when they tell this story. "Attitudes need to change," says Pigozne. "We need to develop a more service oriented approach to tourism."
On the trolleybus home that evening, I witness what might be a regular event lately. A few stops after I get on the bus, a tourist gets on as well. The conductor doesn't speak English and the tourist seems to only speak English. Sign language is not helping. Tempers start to flare and the other passengers simply duck their heads and pretend not to notice that the conductor has started to yell. A quick English intervention on my part reveals that the conductor cannot change five lats and wants the tourist to pay in smaller currency. Once he understands, the tourist does so immediately and everyone is happy. Simple problem and I wonder how it managed to get so out of hand so quickly. I can't help but think that while tourists are ready for Riga, perhaps there is a part of Riga that is not yet prepared for tourists.
Despite the challenges, however, the sightseeing masses are here and they are happy. I walk around the Old Town and ask people what they think. "Great place." "Beautiful!" "I will be back." The answers are unanimously positive. Perhaps I have caught them while the sun is shining and they are generous, I think. And then I look around and try to see what they see 's what I have started to take for granted. St. Peter's Church. The Freedom Monument. The parks and green space. This is an amazingly beautiful city. Rain or shine, Riga really is a great place to be.