RIGA - With hotel occupancy levels set to drop drastically this winter, many leaders in the hospitality industry see room for improvement in how Latvia plans and promotes itself as a destination for tourism and business conferences.
A whole range of efforts - from simply improving the tourism information desk at the train station to planning major international events years in advance - need to be undertaken if Latvia is to realize its tourism potential and bring more tourist dollars into the country.
As in Lithuania, Latvians are learning that attracting tourists is more complex than just erecting modern hotels with all the amenities.
"There are an awful lot of hotels. What Latvia has got to do is spread it out, fill the hotels all year round," says Mike Johnson, general manager of Patricia Ltd., a firm that helps tourists and business travelers find the right accommodations.
To do that, Johnson says, Latvia needs to "tear up the calendar of events and start all over."
Big events, he explains, should be announced at least 18 months in advance. That way promoters, armed with a full schedule, could start selling trips to Latvia further in advance and have a better chance at filling the whole year up with bookings.
Charles Otter, director of sales and marketing at the Radisson SAS Daugava Hotel in Riga, applauded Latvia for snatching up big events such as the Eurovision Song Contest and the planned Ice Hockey World Championship in 2007.
But he stresses that getting hold of a huge event every year would give an even more consistent boost to tourism.
"Eurovision did a lot, but we need another event. I don't think they realize how much money tourism can make here," he says.
Obtaining these types of international events involves foresight and planning, stresses Otter. Bidding efforts need to take place far in advance since these events often take five to 10 years to get.
"They've got to be working for 2008 right now," he says, mentioning that the coming two years on the Latvian calendar lack a major attraction.
To be sure, the first efforts are being made. Minister of Economy Juris Lujans announced last month that the government would allocate 1 million lats (1.5 million euros) to tourism development next year, or more than twice invested this year.
In addition, the state, which wants tourism to comprise 5 percent - 7 percent of GDP in the future, will place more efforts toward boosting Riga as a conference center and ferry tourism with neighboring states.
Also, the State Agency for Tourism Development opened Nov. 6 a tourism office in London to attract more U.K. visitors.
Gundega Zeltina, director of Latvia Tours and chairman of the board of Inspiration Riga, a new effort by industry leaders to promote Riga as a conference destination, agrees that Eurovision gave an undisputed lift to the country's visibility.
"People don't ask where Riga is anymore," she says.
Zeltina adds that more conferences and seminars for corporate clients would provide more visitors in the winter, what Riga currently lacks.
The solution to the more difficult winter season does not involve building more hotels, stresses Otter. Doing so would only dilute the business.
Instead, he suggests that Latvia look to the promotional campaigns of cities such as St. Petersburg. There the industry has promoted wintertime as "white days" to compliment the "white nights," the long days of the summer with only a couple hours of darkness.
Others see the off-season as an appropriate time to look to the country's large neighbor to the East.
"We have special offers for wintertime, especially for the Russian market," says Zeltina.
Latvia could also see more tourists from Finland, as Finns begin to wander further south from their favored destination, she says.
"Every Finn has now been in Tallinn five times," Zeltina adds.
Mass tourism by ferry lines as a means of travel is also gaining significant importance for Latvia.
Still, though the industry was struggling to attract winter visitors, Zeltina stresses that the amount of people coming to Latvia is on the rise. The number of border crossings this year could end up totaling 18 percent more than the previous year, she says.
Similarly, Johnson estimates that hotel bookings are up more than 20 percent this year in comparison with 2002. He says Patricia is seeing an increase in business travel, even during the winter.
He also emphasizes that Latvia would get consistent year-round tourism if there were a boost in customer service. A recent customer satisfaction survey Johnson helped initiate revealed that the country wasn't meeting the expectations of international travelers, who complained that local people seemed unfriendly and that restaurant service was disappointing and slow.
Some tourists also mentioned that a lack of help at the local train station discouraged them from taking excursions to explore areas beyond Riga. Tackling this issue, Johnson says, would make Latvia an even more appealing destination and give the country even more reason to smile.