Many of Latvia's downhill ski slopes and cross-country tracks were already seeing the first customers in mid-December, considerably earlier than the previous ski season. What's more, the ski has stayed and sub-zero conditions have seen visitor numbers swell during the long Christmas and New Year holidays.
Consequently, hopes are high that this could be one of the most profitable years in the winter sports sector for years, with profits likely to be invested in further improving facilities.
"This year we started very early," says Juris Žagars, manager of the Žagarkalns ski center in Cēsis, "we had saved snow from last year. All summer we kept it under a special cover. It was an experiment this year. So we were able to anticipate the start of the season. It was December 1, and then it became cold. We were then able to blow extra snow and open more and more tracks."
Visitor activity is high at Žagarkalns. “People are active. You could even say a little more active. In December, before Christmas, activity is never great because people are preparing for the celebration. Then, at Christmas, activity is very high. And surprisingly, even now, on the first weekend of January, there was a lot of activity, you might even say record-breaking activity."
Though Latvia doesn't have huge mountains, it does have the advantage of ease of access and cheap rental costs, meaning that people can head for the slopes for a few hours after work or at short notice as the mood takes them without having to undergo any logistical strains. The number of Estonian and Lithuanian voices heard at Latvian ski and snowboarding centers also bears testament to their pulling power across the region.
Viesturs Ošnieks, the manager of the Milzkalns slope in Smardes parish, agrees that this year has seen an early start to the season, in his case on December 14th with people keen to put fall behind them and get outside during the first truly cold days of December.
"We usually stay until the end of March and even the beginning of April, if the snow remains. But it all depends on the number of visitors, because we can't work if we can't cover our expenses,” Ošnieks says.
So far he rates visitor activity as good: "We have a successful year this year because we opened for the long Christmas holidays, and I would say the visitor numbers are normal or even good."
The residents of the capital city are often also active in winter sports. There are several skating rinks and cross-country skiing trails for residents of Riga and city guests. They can be used free of charge if you have your own equipment, and again cheap rentals are often available for those that don't.
The kilometer-long cross-country track in Uzvaras park on the left bank of the river Daugava is always busy throughout the winter months, while those looking for an even more lung-busting excursion can skate around the Bikernieku race track in the north of the city. A third cross-country track is on Lucavsala, the formerly abandoned island in the middle of the River Daugava that has been developed into a major municipal park.
Jurģis Grants, responsible for the slope at Uzvaras park, says activity has been high in the early days of the season: “People are increasingly using cross-country skiing because they have realized that this is the best way to keep themselves in shape in winter,” he says. With rental costs for skis, poles and boots typically running at well under 5 euros per hour, it's also cheaper than going to the gym.
Nor is skiing the only option.
Harald Gudermanis, representative of the Riga City Council Education and Sports Department, is responsible for Riga's public skating rinks. “The public skating rink at the Congress House is now open. Skates can be rented on site. In addition, we are planning to open skating rinks at Daugavgriva Secondary School, and at the suburban sports centers "Sarkandaugava" and "Kengarags," he says.
Although it is not possible to predict exactly the end of this season, if it lasts until the end of March or even early April, everyone should be happy - and in good shape for the arrival of spring.
You can find further information about all of Latvia's ski slopes at the website of the Latvian ski federation, with several centers having webcams and providing weather forecasts so you can track the conditions for yourself.
For information about ski opportunities inside Rīga, another dedicated website gives the locations and costs of tracks, plus information about lessons for learners.