GTP Headlines had the chance to learn about “Magnetic Latvia” – the country’s new tourism motto – thanks to the hospitality offered by the Latvian Investment and Development Agency (LIAA) and airBaltic.
For us Greeks, spoiled by almost 350 days a year of full sunshine and warm weather, visiting a ‘far off’ northern European country for holidays has until now never been an option.
But as all things in life, travel trends too are changing, thankfully, to include other countries, destinations and territories achieving what is most needed in our world: to bring people closer together, foster understanding and acceptance.
With a population of 1,906,743, Latvia is a small country with a rich and turbulent history, made up of forests, swamps and medieval castles, hosting one the world’s largest ‘collections’ of Art Nouveau buildings, and home to the world’s first decorated Christmas tree in history (an ongoing battle with neighboring Estonia).
It is also home to a number of up-an-coming chefs who are not only making inspired culinary creations with the land’s products but are through their innovative food art conveying a message of respect for the environment.
Add to this a territory of untouched wetlands, forests, and beaches, Europe’s widest waterfall – the 110-meter-wide Ventas Rumba – as well as a bustling artsy capital winning over the hipster crowds of the world, and you have a holiday spot in the making.
If the cards are played right, Latvia is bound to become a go-to destination in the coming years, and the country’s flag carrier airBaltic is taking targeted actions to make this happen.
GTP Headlines had the chance to learn more about tiny Latvia thanks to the hospitality offered us by the Latvian Investment and Development Agency (LIAA), which only three years ago set up a Tourism Department under its umbrella, and together with airBaltic introduced us to the secrets of Magnetic Latvia – the country’s new tourism motto.
A Blessed Land Occupied by Trees
Latvia is perhaps one of the few countries in the world which is seeing its forests – made up conifers, birches, white alders, and aspens – increase boasting 35 million hectares of woodland, or 52 percent of the country.
According to the State Forest Service, Latvia’s forested land is expected to continue growing due to unused agricultural land and afforestation.
So much so that according to one of our guides all Latvians are entitled by law to actually go to the forest a cut down a tree to use for Christmas.
You can imagine the surprise for us Greeks, whose forests are few and far between becoming rarer by the day due to forest fires.
In these vast forests, sports tourism products are beginning to attract travelers seeking adventure, untouched natural beauty and experiences. The Latvians are promoting Sigulda town and the Vidzeme Region (some 53km) from Riga, in this direction. Despite the subzero temperatures, we had a chance to take a cable car ride through the national park, visit two Game of Thrones-style castles, and hike along mushroom-filled paths.
Come in spring, fall or summer and the options are limitless including bungee jumping, zipline, mountain biking, SUP on the Guaja River, trekking or even dare the “aerodium experience”, which is like flying in air through Eastern Europe’s first vertical wind tunnel.
Unlike many other European countries “stricken” by global warming and shorter or even disappearing seasons, Latvia can offer travelers the beauty of all four seasons depending on tastes, whether that means swimming in the white-sand beaches of Jurmala or trekking the Great Ķemeri Bog in the wonderful Kemeri National Park. It is said that the bog actually ‘devoured’ a number of World War II tanks, that’s why walkers should stay on the wooded boardwalk as we did and not be lured by the vibrant ‘call’ of Latvia’s dozens of wild berries, including cranberries, crowberries, and blueberries.
Latvian Amber: A Product of Love
What else should Latvia be known for? Well, its “dzintars” of course, which some 3,000 years ago the Greeks called “electron” or “substance of the sun”. A product of ‘love’ between the forests and the sea, droplets of the fossilized pine tree resin can be found along the Baltic Sea coastline. These are handpicked and mastered, crafted into some of the world’s finest amber sought after by merchants from the East and the West.
We had the chance during our stay to meet a third-generation amber master, Harijs Jākobsons, who showed us the secrets of the craft and revealed that jewelers travel across the globe to visit him in his tiny workshop in Sigulda to gain insight and his intricately-worked amber.
Latvia the Figures
Despite its beautiful landscape and lumber exports, Latvia is among the poorest EU member states with regard to GDP per capita. This said, the country is turning to tourism to increase revenues. Indicatively, according to 2017 data released by the Central Statistical Bureau in 2018, the country had 322 hotels, 470 short-stay or guest houses, and 17 camp grounds, with a total number of rooms at around 17,000.
In 2008, some 944,690 travelers visited Latvia, staying a total of 1,699,562 nights and spending 573.7 million euros. A decade later (2017), some 1,778,973 visitors stayed in the country’s accommodation facilities for 3,406,527 nights leaving behind a total of 691.9 million euros in revenues from tourism.
Top source markets in 2017 were Russia (13.6 percent), Germany (11.7 percent), Lithuania (10.2 percent), Estonia (9.1 percent), Finland (6.5 percent), UK (5.4 percent), Sweden (4.3 percent), Norway 4 percent, Poland (2.9 percent) and Italy (2.6 percent).
The airBaltic Connection
The first step in establishing a tourist destination is ensuring connectivity. That’s where Latvia’s national carrier airBaltic has stepped in increasing frequencies and introducing new routes. Earlier this year it extended its seasonal direct link between Athens and Riga through to December (instead of October) with two weekly winter flights for the first time, while announcing this month flights to Paris, London, Dublin, Geneva, Abu Dhabi and Moscow for the Christmas holidays.
Other plans include launching its summer itineraries to Athens a month earlier in 2020 next year, and specifically on March 4, instead of April.
Besides adding 14 flights to run from December 21 through to January 4, including seasonal flights to ski resort destinations such as Salzburg, Verona and Poprad, it also connects Riga to Dublin, Reykjavik and Stuttgart, Malaga, Barcelona and Lisbon. The carrier has entered a sale-leaseback deal with Chorus Aviation Capital.
Indicatively, the Latvian airline handled some 4,345,225 passengers on 53,458 flights in the first 10 months of 2019, up by 22 percent against the same period last year, transporting 470,358 passengers on 5,679 flights in October.
The Riga-based airline – represented by TAL Aviation in Greece – was named the world’s most punctual airline by OAG based on its On-Time Performance (OTP) with 90.01 percent of its flights arriving within 15 minutes of their scheduled arrival times.
In the meantime, airBaltic, together with together with 30 airlines, has committed to increasing female participation at senior levels by 25 percent by 2025. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) gender diversity agreement was signed during the Wings of Change conference earlier this month. At the moment, women account for 40 percent of airBaltic’s top management positions. For its performance, airBaltic has also been shortlisted for the new IATA Diversity & Inclusion Team Award.
So what else did GTP Headlines and a team of Greek journalists do in Latvia? Arriving several days after Latvia’s Independence Day on November 18, we started off with a shot of traditional Black Balsam – a well-kept alcohol- and herb-based secret made since the 1700s – during a tour of the House of the Blackheads. We walked the old town of Riga; dared to step out on the last floor of St Peter’s in freezing temperatures to catch a glimpse of the UNESCO World Heritage listed-city from above; and toured the “Jugendstil Quarter” (photo above) – which is a real-time, real-life showcase of Mikhail Eisenstein’s 1904-1914 Art Nouveau architecture – which was by the way a hobby for him. Most of the world’s finest samples of Art Nouveau architecture are located in Riga.
We sampled everything from Latvia’s traditional dishes, famed rye breads, and cheeses to its Nordic-inspired organic interactive cuisine, and of course, went crazy in Riga’s central food market (Rīgas Centrāltirgus) – a gourmand’s heaven ‘featuring’ the best cured and smoked fish products, honeys, breads and the most colorful pickled items available.
Latvia: The Takeaway
Do visit Latvia, you will be pleasantly surprised. Go in May, June, July or August (average temperatures at 20°-22°C), and if you’re a winter lover go in winter; as one of our passionate guides said: “Despite the fallen leaves, the bare trees, the migrating birds, the cold and scant sunlight, Latvia’s nature, even while it is sleeping, is as beautiful as ever.” I can definitely vouch for that!
Photos by Maria Paravantes