Latvian resort wants the Russians to come back: Adrian Bridge in Jurmala finds that the failure to attract Western visitors has led to nostalgia for the Soviet era

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The Independent Online
LIKE MOST of the clubs, bars, shops and casinos in the Latvian resort of Jurmala, the Cafe de la Presse has seen better days. Sergei, the bartender, can still remember when customers used to queue to get in. Others recall a time when it was almost impossible to move for sunbathing bodies on the miles of sandy beach.

And it was not all that long ago. As recently as the late 1980s, Jurmala, or Riga-by-the sea, still represented the height of Soviet chic, the closest almost anybody could come to the forbidden fruits of the West. After the Black Sea (too hot for some), it was the favoured holiday spot of many a Communist Party dignitary. Nikita Khrushchev, Alexei Kosygin and, more recently, Boris Yeltsin all graced its dachas and beaches, strolled in its pine forests and bathed in its health-reviving spa waters. But it also attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors from throughout the former Soviet Union.

'The place was absolutely buzzing - by Soviet standards, full of life,' lamented Sergei. 'Now it has turned into a ghost town. For those of us trying to make a living here, the last two years have been disastrous.'

The official figures illustrate why. According to the Latvian tourist office, the number of visitors to Jurmala in 1991, the last year of the Soviet Union, was 220,000. Last year this had plummeted to 25,000, or barely 10 per cent of those who used to come.

The reasons given for the great stay-away vary. Some attribute it to the anger felt particularly by Russians over the way in which Latvia and the other Baltic states insisted on breaking away from Moscow. There is resentment because they now require a visa (costing at least pounds 6) to enter a country they once saw (some would say still see) as theirs.

Others put it down to the effectiveness of environmental campaigners who, in the late 1980s, raised the alarm over pollution of the Baltic Sea. Most, however, attribute it simply to cost: although cheap by Western standards, holidays in Jurmala now effectively have to be paid for in hard currency, not something most Russians have much of.

The impact of the slump has been devastating. Over the past two years, half of Jurmala's hotels have been forced to close and half the medical staff and mud-bath specialists in its many sanatoria have been sacked. According to Viktors Greiza-Lisovskis, head of Jurmala's tourist association, all the resort's other businesses are 'on the brink of bankruptcy'.

When Latvia finally achieved independence, in August 1991, few in Jurmala foresaw the scale of the impending catastrophe. Indeed, in the first flush of liberation, Mr Greiza-Lisovskis and his colleagues had hoped that, rather than tourists from the East, the resort would be flooded with a somewhat wealthier class of visitor from the West.

Before the Soviet annexation of Latvia in 1940, Jurmala had been a fashionable Baltic resort, they argued. It had been particularly popular with Scandinavians and Germans. With the lifting of travel restrictions, they hoped it would be popular once more.

In the event, far from a stampede there has barely been a trickle from the West. And the few that have come have not liked everything they have seen. Visually, Jurmala is a curious mix. While still boasting plenty of the picturesque wooden villas built by Latvia's pre-war Baltic German community, the overall effect is marred by the countless concrete high-rises and architectural horrors added during the Soviet period and the appearance more recently of many shady-looking 'business' types, belonging to the region's numerous Mafia gangs.

There have been complaints, too, about the general facilities - some of the most modest hotels do not even boast running water - and because in many places Russian is the only international language spoken. 'Most of what we have here is fine by Soviet standards, but still has a way to go to catch up with the West,' conceded Mr Greiza-Lisovskis. 'Without large investments from abroad we will struggle to compete for the foreseeable future.'

The campaign to save Jurmala has attracted the support of no less a figure than Latvia's President, Guntis Ulmanis, who last month moved into the dacha that used to be favoured by Kosygin, the former Soviet prime minister.

With no prospect, at least yet, of a surge in Western visitors, hopes are now being pinned on a revival of the old trade with the East. Representatives of Latvia's tourist trade are lobbying the government in Riga to drop (or ease) visa requirements on visitors from the Commonwealth of Independent States. Latvian bankers, meanwhile, are trying to reach new agreements over payment methods with Russian counterparts.

'There are not many Latvians who would say this, but here in Jurmala we would genuinely like to see the Russians and others coming back,' said Uldis Likops, the local representative of the Latvian Welfare Ministry. 'And we think they will. In the West, Jurmala may not be very well known, but in the East they drink it in with their mother's milk . . . they all want to come here at some point in their lives.'