Perhaps Estonia, which recorded the fastest rate of tourism growth in all of Europe for 1999, and where tourism makes up a hefty 17 percent of the nation's GDP, could teach its southern neighbor how to realize its tourism potential.
Last week, at a Baltic tourism conference in Tallinn, industry experts discussed how to build up tourism throughout the Baltics, stressing it as a single region. But can Latvia claim its place as a tourist destination?
Perhaps if its rural market is realized. The number of houses providing bed and breakfasts in the catalogue published by the Latvian Country Tourism Association "Country Traveler" includes more than 200 entries on households offering accomodations.
In recent years the numbers of bed and breakfast homes and tourists served have risen but the numbers are still low. Even with increases of 18 percent and 23 percent in 1999 over 1998, only 116 homes served a total of 7,642 guests. Compared with the dramatic progress of tourism in Estonia, Latvia did not take a big step.
The great value of rural tourism is in additional income for the household owners, rational use of land inappropriate for production and cultural contacts with people isolated from city experience.
The acting director of "Country Traveler," Elita Ornina, said the major obstacles for development of rural tourism are the economic situation in the country side, restrictive credit policies and weak infrastructure.
Aira Apsite, the owner of a house in the Ventspils region, said in owning such a business she experiences psychological difficulties.
"It is very hard to understand what the client wants - to distance himself from the host or to make contacts with you and be heartily treated. The foremost problems are to adjust oneself to the visitor's mood, and to provide all supplies is only the matter of time."
Ornina said money holds down rural tourism.
"To create a normal recreation site, big investments are necessary. For long-term credit I do not know of any sources for less than 14 percent. In the tourism business, high-cost money comes very slowly and is unacceptable. To impose this interests ruins the household finances totally," Ornina said.
"The road question was always a hard one for rural tourism. If the highways are more or less patched up, the local road conditions cause tears!" said Ornina. She said accessibility is one of the most significant factors affecting tourists' choices. Her own driving experience tells her that if the traveler has to drive 30 km on a dirty farm track, the impression a country house gives might be lost on the way.
Ainars Kalnins, the head of the Latvian Tourism Development Agency said bad road quality is not a problem. People travel around Latvia according to their own abilities - on foot, by bicycles, by cars and so on. He said the issue is really exaggerated, for "rural tourism is not mass tourism."
Apsite's house is 26 km from the bus and railway station and can be reached only by car.
"Quality of roads is a very unpleasant problem for us. We have last 4 km of the way to our house on a gravel road in both Talsi and Ventspils directions," Apsite said. She hopes that the regional infrastructure will get something from the EU regional development funds, but she is pessimistic about Latvia's ability to change anything in the near future. "There will always be at least 100 places strategically more important than our track," said Apsite, explaining why she did not hand in a petition to the municipal council about the road quality.
Statistically, country roads are in worse condition than urban and national roads. More than 16.3 percent of all country roads need repair, compared to only 3.6 percent of the national roads.
"Both road surfaces are of low quality and the signs are incoherent, making it very hard to orient," said Ornina. She admitted, however, that the Latvian Road Directory is developing a unified tourism sign standard that will bring order to the system.
Ainars Morozs, the head of the Traffic Management Department at the LRD said that unified road signs standards, including service signs, were adopted in 1996.
"We started to design the tourism sign standard in February 1999. Now the work is completed, and we are discussing currently the third version with the hospitality providers involved. The signs already appear all over Latvia," said Morozs, "differing from the approved standard."
Morozs explained that hosts of tourist sites post road signs which have different colors and design, and mark not only the site but also the direction. Therefore the sites are marked with signs that litter the roads and do not give sufficient directions."
"The problem is not the signs, but the lack of a tourism promotion program. The signs will not resolve the problem, will not attract tourists, " said Morozs. "Maps of good quality are more essential. People cannot prepare the route in advance. They lack the basic information - the maps. We are occupied with the final link of the chain."
"The tourism promotion organizations should think a step ahead - not only posting the signs, but also introducing large maps on the roads."
"We have pretty good maps, and there are even satellite maps now available in Latvia, where everything is on a very small scale," she said. "It probably can be said that we need tourist maps. Yes, we lack tourism maps for the whole of Latvia, but some regions have such maps - Cesu, Riga and Liepaja regions."
The development of regional infrastructure and promotion of tourism is the responsibility of the Ministry of Environment Protection and the Regional Development. Kalnins, the head of the LTDA, the structural department of this ministry, asked whether the agency had initiated any program to improve road quality, said "We initiate a program only if there is an application from the municipal government saying that road development is impeding an approved program to develop tourism. If a rural district asserts that the road is bad and it is difficult to drive up, we turn to the ministry," said Kalnins.
He said that the greatest part of the rural tourism plan is already developed and will be presented before July 1. Its designers, "Country Traveler" will explain the possibilities and ways to use natural as well as human and cultural resources and create new products and services of uniform standard.
During May 20-21 Sigulda, the Latvian tourist Mecca 50 km from Riga, will host "Rural Tourism 2000" with seminars to help people to launch a new competitive business. Still the implementation of the program is an expensive and time consuming ambition.
Jaclyn M. Sindrich also contributed to this story.