Just read this in the Russian newspaper 'Bisnes i Baltika' (Business and Baltic) that number of foreign visitors to Latvia is down by 10% in the first quarter of 2008 compared to the first quarter of 2007. Headlined "the drunken English era has come to an end" and illustrated by a photo of a Northern Ireland football fan (!) it predicts a grim three years ahead for the tourism industry with hotels and restaurants closing down.
It interviews Martin Schaeffer, head of a tourism consultancy, Kohl and partners who says: "stag tourism in Riga has come to an end. Latvia has a lot of potential but isn't using it. It needs to offer visitors something unique and extravagant which they haven't seen before."
His model for the future...? (I nearly choked on my coffee with laughter) Building new posher hotels like the Burj Al Arab in Dubai in the hope that loyalty to hotel brands will encourage more upmarket visitors to Latvia, as the economic situation doesn't allow for the current prices to be lowered. More sensibly, he states that one under exploited market is the market for business conferences, which he says that Latvia's hotels currently don't have the facilities to cope with. Although I'm still doubtful that it can compete with already established markets.
Most of what's said in the article has been long predicted here but I'm afraid that if Latvian businesses and their consultants think that the solution to declining visitor numbers is to build newer, even more expensive hotels then they've spectacularly missed the point. The whole reason for the boom in visitor numbers in the first place was the perception that Latvia was cheap. By engaging in a short term policy of getting rich quick, rather than a longer term goal of keeping prices reasonable and encouraging repeat visitors, many Latvian businesses have sowed the seeds of their own demise.
So what's the future for Riga old town? Boarded up shops mixed with a few stella pubs and steak chaos branches?