RIGA - As worldwide tourism shrinks in the wake of last month's terrorist attacks in the United States, the Baltic states may benefit as travelers look for safer destinations.
Tourism numbers both globally and domestically are down, but local hotels and tour operators are optimistic that the Baltics won't feel the same pinch as countries in the European Union and North America.
For now, travel agents are seeing tourism numbers on a par with seasonal norms.
"I look out in the streets and there isn't a reduction in the number of tourists for this time of year," said Guntars Jaudzems, tourist manager at the Balta tourist agency. "But it isn't growing right now either."
And with travelers shying away from planes, the bus-centered tourism industry in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia could see a boom, said Paul Taylor, director of sales for the Baltic states at Radisson SAS Hotels and Resorts.
"Tourism here is built on coach travel. In Denmark they've already seen an 800 percent increase in coach traffic," he said. "Straight after Sept. 11 a lot of business was diverted to the Baltic states away from the United States and the Middle East."
While the majority of tourists in the Baltics are themselves from the region, significant numbers still come from outside, said Liga Miesniece, spokeswoman for the Latvian Tourism Development Agency.
Of all foreign tourists to visit Latvia the greatest number come from Finland, with more than 133,000 entering the country in 2000. They were followed by Russians, of whom nearly 140,000 entered the country and then Germans, Poles and Swedes. The United Kingdom and the United States ranked seventh and eighth, respectively.
With tourism peaking in the summer months the effect of the Sept. 11 attacks is difficult to gauge, said Miesniece.
The number of tourists coming to Latvia this year has been considerably up on last year, with 924,000 coming so far this year compared with 828,000 for all of 2000.
Renata Balsute, spokeswoman for the Lithuanian Tourism Information Office in Vilnius, agreed it is almost impossible to distinguish whether the recent drop in tourist numbers is due to the end of the high-volume summer season or is a response to the terrorist attacks.
"It is autumn already," she said. "The Baltics are not an attractive place for winter tourism."
It is next summer, according to many who work in the tourism industry, which will show whether tourism in the Baltics is on the increase or decrease.
Tour operators, tourism agencies and travel agents are looking to push the Baltics as a safe destination for travelers wary of vacationing in terrorist hot spots.
Balsyte said she has heard Lithuanian tour operators say people consider the region a safe part of Europe - a strong selling point in today's skittish travel market. At least one tour operator, according to Miesniece, is looking at attracting conference organizers looking for safe, neutral destinations.
Because destinations in the European Union - especially the United Kingdom and France - can be seen assisting with the U.S. attacks in Afghanistan there are concerns they may be targets for retaliation.
"It is a peaceful place, the Baltic states," Miesniece said. "This can be put to our advantage."
The Radisson in Riga is hoping to attract more conference business from its largest clients both locally and in Scandinavia, Germany, the United Kingdom and Finland, said Sandra Dimitrovich, public relations manager for the hotel.
While Dimitrovich said the hotel was expecting a 20 percent loss between September and December this year, she attributes the decline in business to increased competition and fewer people staying in town overnight.
Part of taking advantage of the Baltics' image as a safe destination is making sure travelers, tour operators and conference organizers hear about the region.
"Declining tourism elsewhere will benefit the Baltics - depending on how tours are advertised," Jaudzems said. "This is a good destination because it is cheap and there is enough to see. But, we don't have many palaces."
Unfortunately for Latvia, it is playing catch-up with its Baltic neighbors.
Guntars Krasts, chairman of the Latvian Parliament's foreign relations committee, said the country's image-making machine is vastly underfunded and divided between too many agencies.
A tourism Web site for Latvia won't be available in English until January 2002, while both Estonia and Lithuania have sites up and running.
"We have to have a strong image abroad," Miesniece said. "When you don't know about a land you can be afraid."
It isn't just domestic tourism that is affected by increased fears about flying and the safety of destinations.
Domina World Travel is taking 58 Estonian and Latvian tour operators to Egypt in an attempt to soothe their doubts about safety for travelers there.
"Although the situation in Egypt continues to be very peaceful and no organizer has halted tours due to a decline in security, we decided to take the firms selling package tours to see the situation themselves," said Karin Piir, sales director at Domina World Travel.
Jaudzems said Balta travel agency has seen a definite decrease in the number of people wanting to travel to exotic locations like Egypt, Tunisia and some areas in Asia since mid-September.
But Jaudzems, who is flying to the United Kingdom in a few weeks, expects travel from the Baltic states to return to normal eventually.
"If a plane is attacked, it won't be from Riga," he said. "It doesn't get enough publicity."