Awaiting the world

Awaiting the world

If Riga’s status as European Capital of Culture is to deliver the desired boost to Latvia’s visitor economy beyond next year, much rests on Diana Civle’s shoulders. The Riga 2014 Foundation head talks to Kate Kolbina

Riga

It’s phrased in more professional language of course, but Riga’s place inLatvia’s current tourism strategy is essentially this: “If you’ve got it, flaunt it!”

A Baltic showpiece for centuries, the Latvian capital remains one of Europe’s architectural jewel cases, combining the spires and fortifications of a thriving mediaeval Hanseatic port, with the rich fancies of late-19th / early 20th Century art nouveau.

All of this heritage will be put under the spotlight when Riga becomes the third Baltic capital to win the prized European Capital of Culture accolade, following Vilnius in 2009 and Tallinn in 2011.

Latvia’s economic planners are hoping that the year-long series of events will add lasting value to the Latvian brand, boost the €1.44million or so annual foreign overnight visitors (plus 4m daytrippers), and most importantly, increase the LVL 308m (€476m) they pump into the recovering local economy. Although the headlines from the cultural extravaganza will be all about Riga and Latvian excellence in performance, the visual arts and architecture, areas where this country more than holds its own in European terms, Riga 2014 is about much more than “art for art’s sake”.

The Latvian Tourism Marketing strategy 2010-2015 makes clear the need to make more of the attractions of Riga as the gateway to Latvia, an aim shared by officialdom from the Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis downwards. The PM has said that he sees Riga 2014 as “a great opportunity for Latvia and for Riga to present its cultural riches. We believe there are plenty of them, and they still need to be better promoted”.

According to Latvian Tourism Development Agency’s Marketing Strategy 2010-2015, much rides on Riga’s ability to pull in visitors, to drive an increasingly sophisticated nationwide tourism offering based on heritage, old craft skills,
environment and ecotourism.

As European Capital of Culture 2014, Riga will host a year-long programme of events, budgeted at €24m.

Of this, 40% is provided by Riga City Council, 35% from the Ministry of Culture, 10% from sponsorship and the rest from EU funds. The year will have the double goal of boosting Rigans’ pride in their unique environment, and of drawing in more foreign visitors, keeping them here for longer, and dispersing their spending power around this small, and – Riga 2014 organisers stress – highly accessible nation. There are, for example, high hopes of drawing modern art pilgrims to Daugavpils where a major new destination museum of the works of the great Latvian-American abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko opened in April 2013, in a former castle arsenal. “When it comes to tourism, Riga is sold out anyhow every summer” says Diana Civle, the well-known Latvian arts administrator who heads the Riga 2014 Foundation. “The numbers dipped from 2009-2010 when we had the economic crisis but now we are back to fully booked out hotels. But we want people to know that it’s worth coming to Riga in winter or spring or autumn, we want to make people stay longer. We are too much a ‘weekend break’ kind of city.”

After years in the planning, the programme that Civle and her colleagues have put together is carefully designed to integrate existing cultural events and to draw people to the capital from far and wide throughout the year. Civle says that part of the competitive pitch to the EU was the insistence on Riga 2014 being a democratic festival, that would not be shunned by locals who assumed that it was all about opera, ballet and other so-called ‘elite’ spectacles. This is more of a challenge for Riga, which carries the heavy historical weight and expectations of over 800 years of civilisation, compared to smaller, more youthful and strategically nimble cities such as Umea in northern Sweden, which will share Capital of Culture 2014 status with Riga.

“Even when we have events at places like the Opera House we will make sure that there will be big screens outside so that people can see it for free. Says Civle: “This is important. As much as we are able to, we are arranging events that people can come to for free. We are keen to involve Rigans themselves. We want to have as many events as possible on the outskirts of the city where people actually live. People don’t live in the centre where the big cultural places are located.

“Our idea is to make it so that if you are in a suburban park walking your dog you can encounter something that draws you to say ‘what’s this? What is happening? ah, that’s interesting’. We want to make the point that culture is for everyone, it doesn’t have to be something complicated, and incomprehensible, it can be fun.”

For much of this year Esplanade Park in the centre of the city has been home to a Riga 2014 pavilion, an open-walled greenhouse-like space designed to whet appetites for next year’s attractions and to emphasise the organisers’ point that this
event is for everyone.

Ulrich Fuchs, deputy director of the current Marseilles City of Culture 2013 and a veteran of several European City of Culture managements, including Bremen 2002 and Linz 2009, is impressed with the preparations, but stresses that the event will be what people make of it.

“Riga’s programme is a nearly perfect combination of tradition and innovation,” he says.

“There is never a guarantee of success for any Capital of Culture. All stakeholders in a city have to work hard to prepare for such
a big challenge.“

the programme will include January’s rare performance of Wagner’s opera Rienzi, written during the German composer’s youthful sojourn in Riga, the World Choir Games international singing competition in July, and a range of exhibitions inside the former KGB headquarters, which will reveal its sinister secrets when it is thrown open to the public for the first time in April.

While it is by no means automatic that European Capital of Culture status transforms a city’s economic fortunes, there are good reasons why cities fight so hard, and jump through so many bureaucratic hoops, to have Brussels confer this honour on them.

A year in the European spotlight tends to be a catalyst for the kind of change that can give advantages in an increasingly crowded and competitive global marketplace.

But despite the gloss applied by cheerleaders for the City of Culture promoters, there are questions about how successfully the other Baltic capitals exploited their year in the cultural limelight.

Estonian market research company Emor showed “no major changes” in activities by foreign visitors in 2011 in Tallinn compared to 2008. Overall satisfaction with the visit remained similar to the (quite high) 2008 level, and a modest 16% of all the tourists visited Tallinn 2011 events.

Vilnius had the severe misfortune to be cultural capital during financial crisis in 2009, which of course had a negative impact on visitor numbers, as well as financial support for the programme. The event was also tainted by accusations of excessive politicisation, and the lasting legacy of the events fell short of what was hoped for.

With the legacy of that crisis still in evidence, the Latvian Government makes no bones about the need to pep up the visitor economy, against a background of slowed but persistent net emigration.

The aforementioned tourism marketing report lays out this challenge with an admirable lack of the jargon and obfuscation characteristic of official reports:“The Latvian tourism industry faces problems related to the poor quality of products and services, marked seasonality – or the lack of year-round trade – and the resulting fluctuations in the turnover of tourism business, insufficient cooperation at all levels, the rapid increase in the VAT rate, and the lack of a single development vision” it warns.

“Irrespective of these aspects tourism in Latvia is considered to be one of the possibilities of national economic development and priorities of service industry since tourism is a significant source of export income making a considerable contribution to GDP.”

While it is hard to know in advance how well the reality of Riga’s big year will match hopes and expectations, the mood is positive, notwithstanding minor disasters like the failure to complete the renovations of the National Museum of Latvia and the Museum of Occupation. This means that these major components of Riga’s tourism offering will be closed to visitors throughout 2014.

According to Ulrich Fuchs, there is all to play for in the city on the Daugava River: “Some cities in the past failed to capitalise on the opportunity, others have managed to translate it into ten years-worth of urban development.

“It should be an event as much for Rigans as for visitors. It gives an opportunity to strengthen citizens’ pride and to attract a new audience of tourists, the ones who are interested more in content than in consuming beer and fast food.”

With luck, the sellers of beer and fast food will also have a bumper year.

The good news for Latvia’s recovering economy and for its small businesses, is that the hundreds of thousands of visitors who will come to Riga to feed their souls with art and culture, will also need to fill their stomachs, and rest their heads.