Wars, SARS forcing Balts to rethink holiday

  • 2003-04-24
  • Agnese Scuka

Tension in the Mideast due to the war in Iraq and fears of the SARS virus spreading unchecked around the globe have Baltic tourism operators bracing for a rocky summer season, though a quick end to the war and containment of the epidemic could lead to resurgence in demand.

Some Latvian tourism operators, however, are expecting a crisis in the industry. The Foreign Ministry has issued travel advisories to a number of prime vacation hotspots - Turkey, Egypt, even Spain - and customers have shown a particular anxiety about traveling anywhere in the East.

Martins Plumins, director of LUTK (Latvia University Tourist Club), Latvians are refusing to go abroad for holidays..

"Tourists in Latvia now fear to come under attack, so they prefer staying at home rather than traveling, particularly to Islamic countries," he said.

Uldis Lass, director of World Travel Service, believes that the war in Iraq is going to affect the tourism industry, though for now he sees a wait-and-see attitude in most clients.

The war in Iraq has hit the tourism industries in Turkey and Egypt hard, and hotels have been forced to lower their rates by up to 30 percent to attract visitors.

Many Russians have jumped at the bargain opportunities and are scooping up tickets to Turkey.

For the time being, however, it is unclear whether the same approach will take hold in the Baltics, including among ethnic Russians living here.

Inga Freiberga, commercial director of Riga Travel Agency, said that Spain, despite the threats of terrorism connected with Basque separatism, is benefiting from the war in Iraq, as many of the agency's clients are choosing it over preferred destinations such as Turkey and Egypt.

Natalja Vinogradova, travel agency manager at Putniks, said the situation at the moment was "not as bad as it seems."

Though she admits that things are not yet stable, Vinogradova said that none of her tours had been canceled.

"Nothing will stop those tourists who'd really love to travel to Turkey from going there," she said.

Nevertheless, Domina Travel, which cooperates with Putniks in the industry, had to cancel all its flights to Turkey in the beginning of April, according to Vinogradova, plainly showing that Latvians backed off from taking any risks.

Meanwhile, the flip side to the tourism issue - foreign tourists visiting the Baltics - remains equally unclear in regards to the new international circumstances.

According to the Central Statistical Bureau, in 2002 Latvia enjoyed the highest foreign traveler inflow over the past few years.

Though most of the visitors were from Estonia and Lithuania, 20 percent were from the European Union, with Finland, Germany and Sweden predominating.

However, Mike Johnson, head of Patricia, a tourist office specializing in servicing foreigners traveling to Riga, said he believed very few people would come to Latvia in 2003.

"The situation is bad," he said. "Latvia's biggest problem is a lack of high-class service. The prices are too high, and the quality is not good enough."

Johnson said that the Latvian tourism industry has not yet been affected by the war in Iraq. The condition might change after May and June - in the boom summer period.

Though the Eurovision song contest promises to pack in the viewers almost regardless of international tension, a failure to nip the SARS bud could be a huge deterrent for many North American and U.K. tourists who visit the Baltics.

Astrida Trupovniece, an official of the Latvian Tourism Association, said dynamics in the tourism industry could change dramatically in the summer if the SARS continued to spread.