To write on a tourism season in September is surely being too pessimistic. A tour operator needs to be judged on what he sells in October or March. However, for many people in the Baltics the season is now over, and to those for whom it is not, I would simply say congratulations for running a 12-month business. I hope that more hotels and museums do likewise next year.
Riga turned out not to be the nightmare for accommodation that had been anticipated earlier in the year. The over-optimistic projections of several large tour operators did not in the end materialize, and enough rooms were left for most agents handling late bookings. If some clients could not in fact stay in Riga itself, they finally learnt that Latvia offers much else. They can hardly have been disappointed if they were forced to stay at Mezotne Palace instead.
Tallinn was occasionally tight (I'm discussing rooms, not drink) at weekends during the summer but again could accommodation at Palmse Manor be seen as a disagreeable alternative? Tourists to Vilnius still benefit from the hotel building boom of 2002/3 and one that followed in 2004 in Kaunas.
A glance through the travel supplements in the U.K. over the last few months might suggest that only stag parties visit the Baltics. They offer a good silly season story, but the publicity and worries they generate is out of all proportion to the trouble they actually cause. I certainly did not enjoy walking along Grecinieku in Riga one Friday night this summer when I was probably the only person there buying neither alcohol nor sex and caused wonderment as a result. An evening stroll along Suur-Karja in Tallinn is an equally disagreeable experience, but both roads can be easily avoided. Should tourists express any concern, I always advise them to seek out a concert. The ticket price will be cheap, and there is a 100 percent chance of a totally civilized audience. (The only slightly uncivilized element might be another tourist rather shabbily dressed.)
Tour operators are looking forward with optimism to 2006, not because they always take a view diametrically opposed to farmers, but because we can actually look forward to a wider ranger of accommodation in both Riga and in Tallinn and as a result lower prices.
Estonia tends to be thought of as the most media-savvy of the three Baltic states, but this certainly does not apply to most of the Tallinn hotels due to open in the next few months. The Telegraaf on Vene is up and running for business, if not quite yet for guests, whereas all the others seem determined to prevent 2006 bookings for as long as possible. Any casual walker around the Old Town can see the enormous hotel rising all along one side of Vana Turg, and the several nearly complete on Suur Karja, but their owners and their plans remain totally concealed from potential sources of regular business.
In Riga there is the reverse situation. All through the summer of 2005, when there was often a shortage of rooms, we received detailed information on hotels we could only use in the winter or the following year. The Ice Hockey Championships in May are a perfect stimulus for ensuring that promised opening dates are kept. In Vilnius, a Kempinski will add an extra touch of luxury in 2006 but the current stock of hotel beds should suffice for the likely demand.
The message tour operators will try to get across to their clients in 2006 is that tours should be extended away from the capitals. I took a group in 2005 to Anyksciai, Aluksne and Moisakula. They were interested in railways, and not too many other people are. However, there are plenty of centers away from the capitals that deserve more visitors than they currently get. I am a fan of Siauliai, where I am always happy to spend a frivolous quarter-of-an-hour at the Cats Museum and a serious half-hour at the Frenkelis Mansion. Most tourists simply skirt the town in their race from Vilnius to Riga, only allowing time for a stop at the Hill of Crosses.
I was sad to see so few tourists in Kuldiga despite wooden architecture more impressive than most such buildings in Riga. Even much larger cities suffer likewise. I still often feel lonely in the museums of Kaunas and Tartu when I am there outside of July or August. This is hardly surprising given that I am usually the only visitor there.
I suppose no analysis of the Baltic states can ignore "the Bear," so suffice it to say that Baltic operators hope he will continue to offer more of the same. Expensive and time-consuming Russian visas help to keep Pskov empty and Riga full. Tourists who might wander south along the Curonian Spit from Nida into Kaliningrad are kept firmly in their place. Nobody in the Russian Foreign Ministry presumably realises this, but most of the tourists they turn away will become converts to the Baltics cause. Thank you, Mr. Lavrov, and please keep up your good work.
Neil Taylor is author of the Bradt Guides "The Baltic States", "Estonia" and "Tallinn"