RIGA - A year ago this week, the first European low-cost airline landed in Riga. Optimistic commentators predicted a business boom, while pessimists warned that downtown Riga could become a haven for drunken ribaldry and a no-go area for respectable tourists.
The passing of the first anniversary has only intensified the debate. Last week Transport Minister Ainars Slesers proudly announced that by 2015 Riga International Airport would handle a staggering 10 million passengers, or more than five times what it is expected to see this year.
One could dismiss the forecast as wishful thinking, but it was Slesers himself who, after becoming minister in the beginning of 2004, predicted that 2 million passengers would shuffle through Riga International Airport this year. Few believed him then, but after the appearance of low-cost airlines, people are listening.
The statistics make impressive reading. In 2004, the airport processed its millionth passenger on Dec. 13, a record that was broken this year on Aug. 1. The actual full-year total is estimated at 1.8 million. Since Latvia joined the EU, five new airlines have added Riga to their timetables, galvanizing off-season tourism. According to the Latvian National Statistics Office, the tourism sector as a whole grew 18.3 percent in the first half of 2005, and demand for tourist products was so strong that it was recently cited by Ilmars Rimsevics, president of the Bank of Latvia, as one of the motors of the country's inflation.
With the country set to host both the Ice Hockey World Cup Championship in 2006, tourism looks like a national gold rush.
However, local media have been quick to point out the downside. A boom in prominent strip bars has fueled fears of increasing prostitution, while a series of boisterous stag and birthday parties has given rise to fear that the city may soon be swamped in unbridled hordes. Both developments would pose a serious threat to other forms of tourism, and could undermine all the achievements of the past year.
No sleaze, please
So far, however, the evidence is against it. According to Ints Kuzis, deputy head of the Riga Police Board, "We haven't felt any increase in injuries, crimes or disorder among tourists this summer. We were worried that there might be some impact, and we had contingency plans prepared, but in any event, we didn't have to use them. Most of the problems we see are visitors losing their papers or being robbed, often under the influence of alcohol."
Of course, there have been exceptions, but as Kuzis says, "Some tourists also become offenders, but characteristically, they don't commit criminal actions: it's more public-order disturbances, like trying to climb the Freedom Monument."
And this petty disorder has had no impact on the majority of Old Riga businesses. In the words of the manager of one of Riga's best-known pubs, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, "We were worried that there might be an increase in disorderly behavior this summer, but we haven't seen any problems worth talking about. Business is going up, it's been a positive effect, you just have to keep a closer eye on things than before."
Other city-center restaurateurs support his view: from the business point of view, the tourist invasion has brought nothing but benefits.
Again, however, there are exceptions, and they highlight the nature of the changes in Old Riga. Bruno Izvans, director of Caribbean-style cocktail bar Paldies Dievam, Piektdiena ir Klat and nightclub Pupu Lounge (literally, "boob lounge"), explains, "We haven't had any cases of tourists causing trouble in Piektdiena 's they come here for the atmosphere. In Pupu Lounge, though, we've had real problems. It got so bad that we banned all stag and similar parties at the end of September."
Pupu Lounge is chiefly famous for the pictures of topless models that adorn its walls: the combination of beer and titillation is evidently an explosive one.
Indeed, the rise of strip-bar tourism has become the most noticeable feature of Riga's nightlife. Several of the Old Town's strip bars regularly deploy leafletters to accost passersby, and by the end of the evening so many advertising fliers have been discarded that the streets seem paved in nipples.
As the example of Pupu Lounge shows, this can be a dangerous course to pursue, and its very public nature can only harm Riga's image. As Kuzis says, "Strip-bar advertising in the Old Town doesn't leave a good impression, but it isn't within our competence because it's not illegal."
Moves have already been made to ban such advertising from Riga Airport, and it is to be hoped that similar measures will be taken in the city. Otherwise, Pupu Lounge is unlikely to be the only place to suffer.
No place like home
Believe it or not, Riga is rapidly gaining a reputation as a cultural destination: according to Igor Klapenkov, managing director of tourism and conference promotion agency Inspiration Riga, "A recent survey showed that 11 percent of tourists visiting Latvia this year did so as a result of the recent advertisement on CNN." This TV clip highlighted Latvia as a center for culture and relaxation: clearly, whatever the future may hold, Latvia's current image is more than just booze and bosoms.
In fact, rather than an invasion of drunken hooligans bent on "rape and spillage" the primary impact of the tourist boom has been, quite simply, more tourists, so the main ones to notice a change have been Riga's residents. In the words of an anonymous pub manager, "Nowadays, the regulars only come in mid-week 's at the weekends, it's all tourists."
When asked for their impression of the tourist revolution, many locals interviewed for this article answered, "Riga doesn't feel like our city any more." The root cause of local discontent is not, in fact, a boom in public disorder; it is simply a realization that the heart of the capital is no longer, well, Latvian.
For them, at least, the situation will only change for the worse. To ensure passenger turnover at the airport reaches the stated target, Slesers wants to invest some 100 's 200 million in airport infrastructure development.
In the future, he said there was the possibility of direct flights to New York and Asian destinations such as Beijing and Singapore. Having established Riga as a main East European hub for passengers traveling between East and West, Slesers intends to keep things that way.
So locals will have to put on a brave face. The positive effect on the national economy should not be underestimated, but the time when Latvians could stroll through Old Riga and feel like it was a Latvian city have gone. For the last few years, Old Town residents have been living in a period of grace. With open skies and open doors, those days are quickly receding into the past.