Riga: Thoughtful travels during uncertain (economic) times
I awoke this morning to hear a story on National Public Radio about the financial crisis affecting certain Eastern European countries, especially Latvia, Hungary, and the Ukraine.
Edward Lucas, of The Economist magazine, pointed out that Latvia’s situation is pretty dire: a bank recently collapsed, the nation’s debt is swelling, and the country’s economy shrank by more than 10% in 2008. Furthermore, violent protests this year led to the collapse of the coalition government in February.
I noticed this myself last month, when I spent six days visiting Riga.
Of course, I mostly concerned myself with inspecting hotels and visiting the city’s historic sights. However, one couldn’t escape the signs of economic strain: I saw very few tourists (granted, it was early February), restaurants were empty (or closed), and prices were cheap.
Here was a city that poured millions of euros into reinventing itself as a magical, tourist-friendly destination–and hardly anyone was there. That wouldn’t normally be a major cause for concern in February. But this year was different. There seemed to be an uncertainty about whether or not tourists would return.
Across town, I visited beautiful hotels, freshly renovated (or newly constructed), often with sizable rooms and lovely bathrooms. Many sported eclectic, “boutique” decor. In almost any of the other cities we cover, these hotels would have been out of our Cheapo price range.
Yet, they were quite affordable in Riga. When I asked hotel owners for rates, they often frowned. Should they give me last summer’s rates? The off-season rates? What are this year’s rates? The prevailing attitude seemed to be, “we’ll see.” There was, after all, a big difference between the posted hotel rates and the bargain rates being offered online by the same hotels.
A great time to travel?
I found it all a bit unnerving. To encourage budget travelers to visit Latvia because of ever-discounted prices exploits a nation grappling with an economic crisis. Yet, tourism plays an incredibly important role in the nation’s economy, and it would follow that Latvia would benefit from an influx of tourists, eager to pump their euros (and lats) into the nation’s struggling economy.
Hotel owners, waitresses, the cashier at the opera… people were very friendly to me and seemed hopeful that more tourists would return to the city as the weather heats up.
Upon my return, I’ve raved about Riga. I had a great experience and found it fun, educational, delicious, and, yes, a bargain. Despite my sensitivities, I find myself bragging about what a good deal the city is for visitors.
And yet, I’m cautious when describing the budgetary benefits of visiting Riga.
Something strikes me as distasteful about choosing a destination based solely upon what you can “get” for your money. That may be a great way to purchase a beach resort getaway or a family cruise, but it strikes me as an un-thoughtful way to choose a travel destination.
Isn’t traveling about learning and experiencing? Doesn’t it call for a little more compassion and a little less consumption?
What do you think?
I’m eager to hear from our readers on this issue. Have you every traveled to a foreign country while they were experiencing difficulties? Did that affect your decision to go there? Would you consider going to a country with a shaky economy in order to stretch your travel budget?
Let us know in the comments section below.
For more information about Latvia’s financial troubles, also see an article in this week’s Der Spiegel (in English).