As previously reported numerous times by LSM, Latvia has tried various strategies and slogans over the years, including "The land that sings", "Best enjoyed slowly" and "Magnetic Latvia".
According to Kultūršoks, after visiting Rīga, four young Poles wanted to see something else in Latvia before going home. The choice fell in favor of Rundāle Palace. "This place did not appear immediately when searching. It was only on a blog where it was called the Northern Versailles. It intrigued us a lot, so we decided to see it and we are very happy," says the Polish tourist, whose name was not given.
On the UNESCO website, the Rundāle Palace ensemble with the largest rose garden in the region is described as the brightest example of a feudal residence and an outstanding phenomenon in the context of the whole of Northern Europe.
However, when opening the official Latvian tourism portal Latvia Travel, it is not easy to find information about Rundāle in the English versions of the site. Rundāle Castle is not mentioned among the cultural places worth visiting. Rundāle's name is not even on the list of Zemgale's most notable sights. Rundāle is mentioned in a description of Latvian castles and manors, but only in the text. There are no photos.
Emphasis now on nature and cuisine
The main values of Latvia that we offer to English-speaking tourists are Latvian nature and gastronomy. Laura Lūse, the director of the Rundāle Palace Museum, however, feels that culture is the basis of everything: "It is a way and a means to attract people and a very diverse audience. Because to imagine that people are only interested in food or only nature would be completely wrong because all these things are interconnected. If a person enjoys culture, enjoys the environment, it is not necessary to be a historian or a person with experience in architecture or learning about culture and art, but it is enough that a person is given the opportunity to enjoy and experience something original that is characteristic of that place."
For lifestyle journalist Una Meistere, pushing culture aside makes little sense:
"I think that both nature and culture are actually very connected, because they cannot be separated from each other, because we are also a part of nature, and basically culture is also an expression of mankind as a part of nature.
"Why is it separated... In my opinion, maybe it is such a short-sighted and incompetent approach, because if we look at what is happening in Latvia, then of course, nature tourism and nature are extremely strong, and this is one of the elements that is currently very important, also when thinking about mental health, because it is the place where we can regain our strength, but when we travel outside Rīga, we see that there are a lot of cultural events taking place in Latvia."
Astonishingly, Latvia's tourism policy makers and promoters – the Latvian Investment and Development Agency (LIAA) – refused an interview to Kultūršoks in person or even remotely. Inese Šīrava, director of the LIAA Tourism Department, sent the answers about the change of emphasis in the country's offer to tourists in writing: "According to the research conducted in early 2023 in ten countries (Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Great Britain, Germany, Belgium, USA, South Korea, Japan), people who want to visit Latvia are most attracted by Latvian nature and sights, they want to taste Latvian food and enjoy culture. The offer of the Latvia Travel website is diverse and covers a wide range of thematic offers. Tourism target markets and thematic messages are created in cooperation with the industry," she wrote.
Nature trails, birch sap and cold soup
On the official travel website of Latvia, nature trails are offered as the first activity for foreign tourists. The first Latvian flavor is also related to the forest - birch juice. But unless a tourist happens to know about birch juice season in early spring, he or she might not understand what it is all about according to Lolita Ozoliņa, a doctoral student of the Latvian Academy of Culture and brand researcher.
"We really, really need to put ourselves in the tourist's shoes, essentially understanding – what is self-evident to us, will not be understandable to a tourist.
"And secondly is the question of availability – where and how are we are able to provide this birch sap. We know that it is a specific seasonal issue, so perhaps birch sap and this experience should also be packaged accordingly in that season, at the time it is happening."
Although the title picture of the gastronomic section of "Latvia Travel" has shrimps and asparagus in the place of honor, cold soup, Midsummer cheese, quinces, chanterelles, gray peas and "Gotiņa" candies are highlighted as other Latvian tastes for tourists. Black rye bread does not make the list, but the young Poles who spoke to Kultūršoks even after a short visit to Latvia consider rupjmaize to be the taste of Latvia: "We were also very interested in the local cuisine, and it was quite good. We tried dessert - bread soup, it was quite good. And a few other things. Like garlic bread, which is kind of like a snack."
In order to promote Latvia's haute cuisine credentials, LIAA is also organizing a gastronomic tourism training course this year. For the time being, no restaurant in Latvia boasts a Michelin star, but at the end of last year, LIAA concluded a contract worth 150 thousand euros with Michelin so that the company's gourmands could evaluate the potential of Latvian gastronomy.
"Gastronomic tourism and its importance in the world are growing. The results of surveys conducted by LIAA also confirm that one of the elements of attracting tourists is precisely the gastronomic offer. These tourists are also interested in culture, history, traditions and enjoying nature. Namely, the beneficiaries of this tourist segment are not only restaurants, but also other service providers in the tourism industry," Inese Šīrava, director of the Tourism Department of the Latvian Investment and Development Agency, stated in writing.
Meanwhile, the "Live Riga" agency that promotes tourism in the Latvian capital have also jumped on the gastronomic bandwagon. Rita Pētersone, head of the Marketing Department of the Riga Investment and Tourism Agency, emphasizes that Riga's cuisine does not come before culture: "I think it is very equal. It is very important, because it is, of course, our basic need, no tourist can live without it, so it's definitely a topic that we talk a lot about and will continue to talk about. Also... we organize the Restaurant Week, which is also important, and tourists also notice it and take advantage of this opportunity . That's why it will definitely always be and will remain a priority, but culture is definitely an equally big priority, I think it can't be separated, because it already goes hand in hand."
Is that really who we are?
Lifestyle journalist Una Meistere agrees that people are thinking more and more about what they eat, but there should be a synergistic approach, rather than highlighting gastronomy as something special: "I think that for a very long time, we have tried to follow the so-called world trends, to somehow adapt them in Latvia and pretend to be what we are not. We certainly do not use this potential of ours, because I think we ourselves should feel it, we ourselves have perhaps been very much outsiders for a while.
We have traveled a lot, looked at how others are doing, but we haven't seen what we have."
Brand researcher Lolita Ozoliņa also doubts whether we really reveal who we are to the world: "In essence, we are who we are. The question is, what are those values, and the question is in what follows from those values of these values... here is a question for professionalism both on the part of the brand owners and, of course, to believe for ourselves as a country, as a nation in general, that it is us."
Ozoliņa's verdict is this: "Currently, there is no national brand. There is no national brand strategy, despite what the Investment and Development Agency of Latvia and other responsible, interested parties are doing in this context."