How to convince tourists that there is no war in Latvia?

The transition from Covid-19 to the results of the Ukrainian war is sending very contradictory impulses to the tourist reception industry in Latvia.
26.05.2022. Arnis Kluinis

The lifting of Covid-19 restrictions ahead of the 2022 tourist season was expected by the whole world, and most of the world got it. What no one foresaw was that the place of Covid-19 on the agenda of heads of state, the media and very many peaceful citizens would be taken over by the Russian attack on Ukraine, the consequences of which are spreading like a tsunami wave across the ocean and threatening even those who live supposedly far from dangerous shores.

Tourism statistics for the first months of 2022 are encouraging. Riga Airport reports that it handled 1.1 million passengers in the first four months of this year, 6.8 times the figure for the first four months of 2021. The Central Statistical Bureau, meanwhile, has compiled hotel reports for the first quarter of this year and calculated that they welcomed 276,400 foreign and domestic guests, 2.1 times more than in the first quarter of 2021. This includes 113,000 foreign guests, five times more than in Q1 last year. The statisticians add that they have excluded, as much as possible, war refugees from Ukraine from these figures.

Against the backdrop of the good news, the Ministry of Economy, which is responsible for the sector, held a meeting of the Latvian Tourism Advisory Council in Jūrmala on May 13 and shared the confidence of the now ex-minister Jānis Vitenbergs that "the sector's traders are ready to look for and find new segments of activity, create new tourism products to boost their work and serve both domestic and foreign tourists".

On April 20, Neatkarīgā wrote about positive signals at the level of tourism sub-sectors that "Riga should take over St Petersburg's cruise business" as foreign cruise ships are boycotting St Petersburg and looking for new ports.

As of mid-April, 120 cruise ships with 130,000 passengers had registered to visit the Port of Riga this season. The number of cruise ships calling at the Port of Riga has started to increase (see picture), but the number has been slightly adjusted downwards.

NOT A TIN CAN, but a ship that was in the port of Riga not in some vague better times, but on May 22, 2022 / Arnis Kluinis

There are currently 109 cruise ship calls and the total number of passengers on these ships should exceed 100 thousand. The cruise ship no-entry policy for St Petersburg has been announced for this year and is now very likely to remain in place for the next tourist season. In that case, ships must seek accommodation for the time previously spent by the ships en route to or from St Petersburg. Therefore, ships will stay overnight in Riga more often than in other years and many travelers will be able to disembark in Latvia twice. To what extent is Riga and Latvia as a whole prepared to sustain this interest, i.e. to earn money from people who will spend not two hours but two days on our shores with ever new offers of food and entertainment?

Jānis Vilciņš, a cruise specialist with the ship service company Riga Cruiseship Agency, revealed to Neatkarīgā the possible entertainment for sea passengers arriving in Latvia. It turns out that the number of foreigners willing and able to travel by sea has also decreased, but the remaining ones are far from being ready to pay for their entertainment as much as the tour operators and the providers of individual attractions within it would like and deserve.

Ports now have to compete for ships not only with discounts on entry fees, which are not the biggest expense in cruise cost estimates. It costs much more for shipping companies to spend the diesel to get a ship into a port and back out on the shipping lane. The fewer passengers on a ship, the more each of them has to pay for fuel. Shipping companies therefore try to keep the total cost to travelers within their ability to pay by looking for ports where they can be entertained more cheaply. This eliminates extra measures such as taking travelers on excursions for several days while the ship is in port. Even a 100 km voyage is doubtful, so the beauty of Cēsis will remain unknown to sea travelers. The realistic option is to go to Sigulda or Rundāle, where the price of entry to the castle has been raised on the grounds that the Louvre is even more expensive. Therefore, it is unlikely that there will be many visitors to Rundāle. In Riga, however, it might still be possible to come up with yet another food-tasting or bread-baking offer, or to launch another boat on the city canal with old people who find it difficult to walk on the Old Town cobblestones.

There is also a bright side to the reduced number of passengers, in that Riga has been given time to gradually regain the tourist capacity it lost in the Covid years. Vilciņš says that at the beginning there were even exaggerated concerns about whether there would be buses with drivers and guides that would be suitable to drive around tourists, with repair facilities and maintenance staff. No, this infrastructure has not been destroyed in Riga, but its capacity would be lacking if a large ship full of passengers were to dock in Riga. The same is true of the number of places in the canteens in Old Town, not all of which have recovered after Covid.

Santa Graikste, Executive Director of the Latvian Hotels and Restaurants Association, also confirmed to Neatkarīgā the lacking number of travelers.

70% of group trips of foreigners booked with hotels have been cancelled because they are not sure how safe or unsafe it is in Latvia. Hotels are left with individual - and therefore more courageous - travelers from abroad and locals who use these facilities for events they missed in the Covid years.

It is to be hoped that the shipping companies are not currently experiencing a similar loss of travelers as the Latvian hotels and will therefore not massively cancel sailings on routes that include Riga.

One can speculate to what extent people really consider Eastern Europe, and Europe in general, a dangerous place. Perhaps they point to the war in Ukraine to politely dismiss travel as an unnecessary expense. It is not only in Latvia that many people now have to start saving money to cover everyday needs.


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