RIGA - Baltic citizens no longer need to present a passport while flying to other EU member airports, the newest milestone in an ever integrating Europe.
The three Baltic states, along with six other countries, dropped airspace borders to 21 other European countries on March 31. It was the final step in the long process of joining the Schengen border free zone.
"The dismantling of air border controls is the final step toward completion of a unique and historic achievement: 24 countries of [Europe] have no internal borders," EU Transport Commissioner Jacques Barrot said in a statement.
Riga International Airport held a ceremony marking the event in which Transport Minister Ainars Slesers, Interior Minister Mareks Seglins, National Border Guard head Gunars Dabolins and Airport Director Krisjanis Peters gave speeches and greeted the passengers of the first incoming flight from a Schengen country.
"Today we removed the final barrier that separated us from the rest of Europeâ€¦ This will be a great catalyst to the economy, tourism and business in general," Peters said.
Slesers also said entry into the Schengen air zone would mean an influx of tourism and would have a positive impact on the country's economy.
"The situation changes as of this day. I am sure that this will facilitate tourism and speed of service at the airport," the minister said.
The lack of border checks does not, however, mean that airport security will be slackened.
In fact, airport security caught two illegal immigrants entering Latvia only 23 minutes after the borders fell. The two Philippine residents were attempting to enter the country from Germany.
"We perfectly understand this challenge. The Latvian National Border Guard has assessed the risks carefully and the structural units of the Latvian Border Guard within the next two years will not change. We will observe and closely follow the situation for two years," Dabolins said.
Vilnius International Airport has issued a statement asking travelers to carry their passports with them despite the new regulations, as airport security will still be on high alert.
Estonia, meanwhile, is using the situation to help facilitate visa application procedures for non-Schengen countries by allowing other member states to issue visas to specific countries on Estonia's behalf.
"To facilitate application for a visa, a system has been devised under which one Schengen country can represent another in the issuing of visasâ€¦ Such opportunities were not available for Estonia prior to accession to the Schengen zone," said Lauri Bambus, director general of the Foreign Ministry's consular department.
Estonia has signed extensive cooperation agreements with Finland and Germany that allow the countries to issue Estonian visas to a number of countries in Africa and the Middle East.
Last December, the Baltics abolished land and maritime borders with other Schengen member states.
The Baltic states 's along with Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia and Malta 's had to introduce a string of measures to get ready for Schengen membership.
These included a single Schengen visa regime for citizens of other countries, more cross-border police cooperation, an expansion of the so-called SIS integrated criminal database and the creation of joint patrols aimed at sealing off external borders. Airports were forced to build new terminals in order to separate Schengen and non-Schengen travelers.
The Schengen zone is now made up of 22 EU member states along with non-EU nations Iceland and Norway.
Non-EU member Switzerland and Cyprus, which joined the EU in 2004, are expected to join at the end of the year.
After entering the EU in 2007, Bulgaria and Romania agreed to be Schengen-ready by 2011.