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Truth about Latvian tourism

  • 2002-12-19
  • Mike Johnson
The latest batch of official statistics on tourism in Latvia completely skew the true picture. Apparently a few nameless number-crunchers hiding out in a poorly lit government office found that "tourism is up 16 percent this summer" and that there has been, in the words of their press release, "a rapid increase in the number of foreign travelers to Latvia." They would like us – as well as the new government – to believe that all is well in regional tourism.

It's a grand illusion, and reminds me of an old saying my grandmother once told me: "Are all fishermen liars, or do all liars fish?"

Anyone who wants to know the truth about tourism in Latvia should take a quick look at restaurants in Old Town Riga or the city center during lunch hour. There are no lines. Or recall the number of shops that have hung up the "remonts" sign six months after opening, or the hotels that have average annual occupancy rates of 45 percent.

Most of all, anyone who believes that tourism in Latvia has fine perspectives for growth should recall Riga Mayor Gundars Bojars, who skipped a conference on branding cities and countries even though he was scheduled to speak. (President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, on the other hand, showed up.)

A quick analysis of official tourism statistics shows that much of the so-called increase in short-term visitors consists of Lithuanians and Estonians dropping by for a couple days. This isn't tourism. This is nothing but "curiosity visits," and as the stats show, they're quite cheap. Fifteen lats per day, in fact. Latvian merchants, cafes and hotel owners are not going to get rich on that kind of spending. And this is probably why so many of them are going out of business.

Most frightening of all, however, is the number that the folks at the statistics department buried in the middle of their report: This year the number of business-related visits to Latvia has decreased from 21 percent to just 12 percent of all visitors.

In other words, fewer and fewer investors are coming to Latvia. At a time when the country should be focusing on new business opportunities, this is scary. New money is the only way Latvia, the poorest among all EU candidates in terms of gross domestic product per capita, will be able to fund the dreadfully required infrastructure improvements and pay for all those social programs for the aging population that the politicians are promising.

So why the dramatic fall? In my opinion, it is due to the endless quagmire of Latvian bureaucracy coupled with the basic stand-offish attitudes like "don't get involved," "don't have an opinion," "don't take any initiative culture." It takes at least four times longer to legally accomplish a simple task in Latvia than it does in other places around the world.

As an experienced American businessman working in a Riga travel-related business for over three years, I have had many personal experiences to attest to this frustration. In late 2001 I became the Latvian chapter president of the American Society of Travel Agents, and I tried to get the Riga area travel companies and the Latvian Tourist Board to come together and develop training programs for their employees. No one budged.

Worse, I hear similar stories every day from foreign businessmen who are either based in Riga or are coming and going. Which goes to show that Latvia's bad rap has spread, and potential business partners are likely to hear it loud and clear.

The latest tourism statistics are quite alarming, and they clearly show that we all have to make an exhaustive effort to make Latvia a destination of choice. This requires leadership, but even here there is much to be desired. Some might recall Inspiration Riga, but how much does it cost to be associated with this organization, and how many members do they really have?

We need a more holistic leadership approach to tourism and investment: to develop programs that would teach small business persons about how to run a business; to learn how to attract new customers and keep them coming back; to advertise effectively not only business, but Latvia as a country. We need leadership dedicated to rally the masses of tourism hotel and business persons all over Latvia to assist in this important effort to set the stage for some real tourism and economic growth of our wonderful country.

In my opinion, the truth of the recent tourism statistics indicates that we are seriously lacking leadership, team effort and a spirit of cooperation in tourism, business and government. This leadership void is arresting our development, and we will pay for it dearly in the future if we fail to take measures and work together.

I wonder whether Riga's mayor, when he decided to skip the marketing conference, stopped to think of how his actions will be perceived by people thinking about visiting.

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