When you look around the busy, friendly and vibrant streets of old Riga, it is easy to forget that they were ‘off-limits’ for most of us less than 20 years ago.
Over 50 years of Soviet-enforced isolation had seen to that, but Riga is very much on the tourist map today, its host of attractions making it one of the trendiest cities in Europe for a weekend break.
Located on the banks of the Daugava River, Riga boasts an historic old center where cars are all but banned and a myriad of cobbled streets hold a highlight around almost every corner, reports Routes News.
More than 800 Art Nouveau buildings — possibly the finest collection in Europe — and other unique examples of Gothic and Baroque architecture have led to the ‘old town’ being declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Its specific attractions are numerous and include Riga Castle, the Jewish Museum, Gauja National Park, the House of the Blackheads and St Mary’s Dome Cathedral, which was completed in 1270 and contains one of the largest organs in the world.
A little more humbling is the city’s Occupations Museum, which reminds visitors of the terrible hardships endured by Latvians during first Nazi and then Soviet occupation.
Former Zeppelin hangars now house the city’s Central Market, while a plethora of trendy and upmarket restaurants, bars and nightclubs ensure that Riga has a flourishing nightlife.
With ‘blue’ (rivers, lakes and canals) and ‘green zones’ (woodland, parks and urban squares) galore — it is claimed that they cover more than 50 percent of the city — Riga also offers plenty of places to get away from it all.
Controversy over stag weekends
There is certainly no denying that the high-proliferation of strip clubs has also made Riga a popular destination for stag weekends, and indeed the presence of such groups is still actively encouraged by many tour operators.
Times may be changing, however, as an increasing number of locals are becoming disenchanted with these groups' often rowdy behavior, and such feelings have led to a handful of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) staging a high-profile campaign to raise awareness of the problem.
One organizer, Martin Kozlovskis, declared: “We’re not against particular tourist groups, we’re against their behavior. Many Latvian women get harassed in old Riga, and people aren’t comfortable with that.”
So does Riga’s image need a makeover to appeal to a more sophisticated type of tourist?
Bertolt Martin Flick, CEO of Latvian national flag carrier Air Baltic, believes that the whole thing has been blown out of proportion. “It is much ado about nothing,” he insisted. “Yes, there are some tourists coming over to Riga to have a good time, but the city is big enough to handle it and I really don’t see it as a problem."
Flick added: “You have to remember that as the economy grows, the price of beer will go up and Riga will not be so attractive any more to this type of tourist. It is a trend I am sure that will pass as quickly as it started.”
Riga International Airport’s managing director, Krisjanis Peters, agrees that the city’s popularity as a stag weekend destination will pass, but acknowledged that there is growing discontent at the drunken behavior of certain visitors.
“I think we have to think about what we want to offer visitors and change our tourist advertising strategies accordingly. We need to do a better job of promoting the best of Riga and Latvia, such as our historical buildings, churches and eco-tourism,” said Peters.
Riga has Baltic nations' biggest airport
Riga is by far and away the biggest airport in the Baltics, handling more passengers and serving more destinations than Vilnius (Lithuania) and Tallinn (Estonia) put together.
Indeed the 3.1 million passengers (plus 27 percent) handled in Riga last year dwarfed the 1.7 million (plus 18 percent) welcomed in Vilnius and the 1.7 million (plus 12 percent) accommodated in Tallinn and is an incredible 360 percent up on the 700,000 passengers that passed through the airport in 2003.
Peters attributes the phenomenal rise in traffic to the 2004 introduction of “volume discounts” on landing fees. The scheme offers airlines a landing fee discount of between 5 percent and 80 percent per annum based on passenger numbers handled on each route.
All routes handling in excess of 250,000 passengers per annum qualify for the maximum discount and each new route automatically receives a 40 percent reduction in landing fees during its first year of operation.
The offer, combined with Riga’s growing tourist appeal, ensures that the city has never been so popular with the world’s airlines. Its 17 scheduled carriers today include Aeroflot, KLM, Lufthansa, SAS and low-cost carrier easyjet, Ryanair, Norwegian and Germanwings.
Riga's popularity widespread
The popularity of Riga with the British, Irish, Germans and Scandinavians is reflected in the fact that the top six routes served today are London, Dublin, Stockholm, Berlin, Copenhagen and Frankfurt.
Riga is also a favorite port of call for Russians and Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) nationals, many of whom own real estate in Latvia or do business in-country.
In fact native Latvians account for only 42.3 percent of the inhabitants of Riga today, the bulk of the rest of the population being made up of Russians (42.1 percent), Belarusians (4.4 percent), Ukrainians (3.9 percent) and Poles (2 percent).
And Latvia’s recent decision to open its borders to Schengen passengers is likely to increase demand from the former Soviet republics, as a number of them have recently signed the Schengen Agreement.
In addition to Latvia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia have joined the Schengen travel area and both Bulgaria and Romania have signed up to join but as yet are not full members.
“We are unable to make an accurate passenger forecast for 2008 at the moment as we have no idea how many people living in the CIS countries have Schengen visas. Usually business people have a one-year visa, so we shall see,” said Peters.
The fact that most Latvians speak Russian certainly makes Riga a major attraction for many Russian and CIS businesses.
With Air Baltic actively looking to develop its route network to Russia and the former Soviet republics, Peters is confident that Riga has the potential to become an important hub for CIS traffic.
Riga to build new airport terminal
The popularity of Riga has come at a price for the airport, however, as successive years of double-digit growth means that it needs a new passenger terminal to keep pace with demand, despite opening a north extension to the existing facility in 2006.
Work will start later this year on the construction of a new temporary terminal that is designed to ease congestion at the gateway before the anticipated opening of a new 12 million-passenger-per-annum facility some time after 2011. The temporary facility, expected to house the gateway’s low-cost airlines, will raise Riga’s capacity to 6 million passengers a year.
“We are out of capacity and it shows, especially during the early morning peak periods,” said Peters. “Things may look OK from the outside, but the long queues inside are unacceptable and we are addressing the problem. When the new permanent terminal is built we will have an airport capable of handling 20 million passengers a year.”
The autumn completion of an extension to the airport’s single runway — it is being lengthened to 10,500 feet (3.2 kilometers) — will also ensure that the airport can handle non-stop long-haul flights to Asia and North America.
The airport estimates that the further development of its key infrastructure will cost nearly 300 million euros ($466 million), and has therefore opted to go for a public-private-partnership (PPP) agreement to build the permanent new terminal.
There is certainly no denying that the airport needs to be expanded, but with less than 750,000 people living in Riga and Latvia boasting a total population of just 2.3 million, does the gateway really need a 20-million-passenger capacity?
“A lot of people laughed when we said that we would handle two million passengers yearly, so you never know,” said Peters.
Aspiration to be international hub
“We definitely see our future as an international hub, especially for flights from Asia. We are the nearest European city to Asia and Latvia is, of course, now in the EU," he said. "Why can’t we become a connecting hub to North America, for example? We have been a feeder airport to Copenhagen for too long.”
Uzbekistan Airlines already flies from Tashkent to Riga and then on to New York JFK, and Peters revealed that the airport hopes to persuade another airline to launch non-stop flights to the U.S. later this year.
He also admitted that he would like to see the launch of non-stop flights to China and the “popular Asian destinations” of Thailand and Indonesia.
Peters noted that before 2004, most Latvians considered air travel to be a luxury they could not afford, so they traveled everywhere by bus, car and train. As a result, he says, the airport terminal was fairly empty and check-in was a breeze, with passengers often arriving less than 30 minutes before flights took-off. How times have changed.
“Things are a bit different now,” smiled Peters. “But things are much better for everyone and we wouldn’t wish to put the clock back.”