Business Travel Show Europe Kick Off, 23 February,
Global Travel Risk Summit Europe, April 2023,
3rd Annual Sustainable Business Travel Summit
When you think of summer holidays in Europe the Mediterranean beaches of Cyprus, Greece, Portugal, Spain and Turkey immediately come to mind. However, a number of new destinations on the Eastern fringes of Europe are now regularly seen on departure boards throughout Europe. The Black Sea resorts of Bourgas and Varna in Bulgaria have become established as alternative, and cheap, summer sun destinations with both the British and German markets and similar growth is being seen in Croatia and Slovenia. It is also a similar story for weekend short breaks. Although destinations such as Barcelona, Madrid and Paris remain popular, Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, has emerged as one of the fastest growing short break destinations in Europe. Now, with the growth of the European Union, even more Eastern European cities are becoming popular with tourists, none more so than Riga, the capital of Latvia.
Latvia is the central of the three new Baltic members of the European Union, being bordered by Estonia to the north and Lithuania to the south. Having secured its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the country has been quick to break away from its historic links, joining forces with many partners in the west to the develop a strong economy. The country has broken away from being trapped behind the iron curtain to become one of the emerging economies in Europe. Up until recently many may have not heard of its existence, but it is now firmly part of European culture, having won and then hosted the Eurovision song contest. Although this annual event gets much criticism, it has helped to put Latvia on the map - Latvia's surprise qualification for this year's European Football Championship in Portugal can only help to cement this.
Latvia's past is stepped in history and this is clearly evident in its capital Riga, which has lost little of its ancestral past, despite having turned into a buzzing metropolis. The many years under communist control are clearly evident in the picturesque old town, with winding cobblestone streets and medieval churches, where it is very easy to become lost. Hidden among these narrow alleys are many stunning buildings with wonderful forecourts, ideal for a morning adventure. Riga is a compact town and should be viewed in a relaxed way, taking time to stop at many of the small atmospheric restaurants and cafes that are located throughout the city. For a wonderful view over the town it is worth visiting St Peter's Church, which is one of the largest buildings in the city. At little expense you can enter the church and take a lift up to the belfry, which affords wonderful views over the town and the river Daugava. To view traditional life a visit to the Central market is a must. Housed in a series of hangars which were originally built for zeppelins, the market is located behind the central train station and is packed full of small stalls selling a range of foods and clothing.
Just ten minutes walk to the north, on the edge of the old town, you reach the cosmopolitan splendour of the city's parks and the Latvia Freedom Monument. This monument was erected in the mid 1930s, after Latvia's short-lived period of independence from the Soviet Union. Despite various attempts to take down the monument by Soviet authorities it still stands as a memory to Latvia's past and is viewed upon by its citizens like the Statue of Liberty is by Americans. In Soviet times, if you approached the monument it resulted in immediate deportation to Siberia. Today, the sentence is not quite so severe, although two soldiers stand a motionless guard alongside the monument from dawn to dusk.
Riga is changing, however, and although the old town maintains all its natural beauty, significant investment is being made on the outskirts of town in new business and retail centres. The true nature of this change is clearly evident at Riga International Airport, where the old and dated former Soviet concrete structures have been replaced with modern glass fronted areas, providing a warm welcome to visitors. Although from the outside the airport looks like a typical Soviet airport building, inside it is probably one of the most modern terminal buildings in Europe.
The first international flights from Riga didn't take place until 1991 when first Scandinavian Airlines System (SAS) and then Lufthansa launched operations from the airport. Now national carrier airBaltic is dominating movements at the airport having recently embarked on a major expansion. In the year ahead of Latvia's entry into the European Union airBaltic launched new services to Amsterdam, Berlin, Brussels, Dublin, London, Moscow, Minsk, Prague, Vienna and Warsaw, in preparation for the anticipated upturn in visitor numbers. The airline has also developed an alternative inflight service for a national carrier, offering a full-service in business-class and a no-frills service in economy, allowing it to reduce the price of cheapest tickets.
With new direct links to many major European cities, Riga has now opened its doors to the European tourist. It has a lot to offer but, like many former Soviet cities, things are changing quickly as historic buildings are renovated and converted into modern hotels, restaurants or boutiques. There is a lovely polite welcome everywhere you go, and with good quality restaurants offering evening meals for two at around ”10, bars offering pints of beer at ”1 and cocktails at ”2, all being served by girls that look like supermodels, it is bound to be very popular with tourists.