Sustainable Rural Tourism Development in Latvia

Asnate Ziemele, president of Latvian Country Tourism Association
"Lauku celotajs"

General Facts about Latvia
Latvia is situated in the Northeast of Europe, in the middle of the three Baltic States on the shores of the Baltic See. Latvia is bordering with Lithuania and Estonia as well as with Russia and Belarus. The territory of Latvia is 64.589 sq. km and the population is 2.351.400. The capital of Latvia is Riga, where almost half of the whole country's population is living. The population density in Latvia is one of the smallest in Europe - 36 persons per sq. km. Latvia's main tourism attractions are the capital Riga, the beautiful unspoiled nature and the live traditions reflecting in the great celebrations and events.

Latvian Country Tourism Association
LCTA "Lauku celotajs", founded in 1993, is a non-governmental, non-profit organization associating 250 members (~3800 bed places) - owners of rural tourism accommodations and attractions in Latvia. Association's membership: EUROGITES (European Federation of Farm and Village Tourism, ),
ECEAT (European Centre for Eco Agro Tourism).

Association's main activities
Latvian Country Tourism Association is working with three main target-groups: providers, customers and the public sector.
1) Rural tourism (RT) providers (maintain RT database, run the
Quality scheme, inspect, grade and label properties, train and consult providers, organise provider assemblies, supply professional information in regular newsletters and;
2) Customers (RT website with search and reservation options, reservation office, catalogues, guides, maps);
3) Public sector (co-operation with European RT comunity, implementation of EU (LIFE, PHARE, Leonardo da Vinci programmes) and national projects, lobbying RT on national level, etc.)
The main aim of the Association is to promote and facilitate sustainable rural tourism development, which means creating new jobs, preserving rural landscape, encouraging responsible employment of local resources, creating market for farm produce, basic or additional farm income, local and state budget revenue.
Number of the Association's members and bed places (1994-2002)

1. Providers

The provider target group includes the current and potential members of the Association. The Association's activities aimed at providers are the following:
- Collection of information about the rural tourism accommodations in Latvia (also Lithuania and Estonia) and maintaining a common rural tourism accommodation database.
- Development of quality criteria and grading of rural tourism establishments.
- On-site inspections and consultations for RT entrepreneurs.
- Assignation of the national eco-label "Green Certificate".
- Training and consulting rural tourism providers in Latvia in entrepreneurship, product development & promotion and quality improvement. Publication of training materials.
- Informing the providers about topical issues in rural tourism through the special section for provider in the rural tourism web site and through regular newsletters.

2. Customers
The customer target group includes the travel agents and the end-consumers - tourists from Latvia and abroad.

The main target markets of the rural tourism product in Latvia are (Statistics of 2002):
- Local market covering 69% of the bed-nights
- Foreign market covering 31% bed-nights including such countries as Germany, Finland, UK, USA, The Netherlands, Estonia, Lithuania and other.

Foreign tourists in the countryside of Latvia divided by countries (2002)

The main rural tourism products of the Association are:
- Accommodations in the countryside and small towns of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia:
- Country homes (B&B)
- Self-catering vacation cottages
- Guest houses and small hotels
- Campings
- Castle-hotels
- Active-, eco- and agri-tours through the Baltic States for groups and individuals:
- Bicycling
- Boating
- Fishing
- Hiking
- Horse riding
- Agricultural study tours

The Association is selling the upper mentioned products through the following sales-channels:
- Publications - the Association is publishing the following publications in Latvian, English, German and Russian:
- The annual catalogue "Country Holidays" featuring rural tourism accommodations in the Baltic States.
- The publication series "Green Holidays" featuring accommodations as well as other tourism attractions in the countryside of Latvia, specially focusing on sustainable tourism.
- Internet - the Association owns and regularly updates the rural tourism web site featuring the accommodations, tourist attractions and tour programs in the countryside of the Baltic States. There is a search and reservation system in the web site. The average number of visits to the web site per day is ~500.
- Reservation office - the Association is running a reservation office, which receives approximately 10-50 customer requests per day.
- Tour operator service - Association owns a business company for all the commercial activities - selling group and individual tours
- Other - Association does regular roundmailing to inform the customers and mass media about the latest rural tourism products in the Baltic States. The Association takes part in national and international travel fairs.

3. Public sector
The public sector target group includes the governmental institutions and NGOs of Latvia influencing rural tourism issues, EU institutions, rural tourism organizations in Europe and other stakeholders.
The main activities of the Association in the public sector are related to networking and cooperation:
- Lobbying in national level - participation in discussions on new legislation, representing the interests of rural tourism entrepreneurs. The Association is member of the Latvian Advisory Tourism Board and Latvian Council of Agricultural Organizations.
- Development of a common Baltic rural tourism strategy in cooperation with rural tourism organizations in Lithuania and Estonia.
- Cooperation with European rural tourism community - the Association is a member of the European Federation of Farm and Village Tourism "Eurogites" since 1996 and European Council of Eco Agro Tourism ECEAT - since 2002.
- Organization of seminars and international conferences on topics, which affect the development of rural tourism.
- Implementation and participation in EU and national projects concerning development of rural tourism. There are the following EU projects currently being implemented by the Association :
- Development and implementation of the national eco-label "Green Certificate" for rural tourism accommodations within the EC LIFE environment program co-financed project (2001-2004). Currently 50 accommodations are eco-labeled in Latvia. A special project web site has been developed within the project featuring the project documents as well as special information section for providers, tourists and mass media.
- The project "New approach to training for quality in European rural tourism" (2002-2004) carried out with the support of the EU Leonardo da Vinci program invites to arrive at common understanding of rural tourism quality in Europe based on similarities (common criteria) in European rural tourism quality schemes and finding out expectations of international customers. The project will create a web-based tool for inspector training and provider self-evaluation and offer a neutral methodology for benchmarking the varied rural tourism quality systems in Europe. The tool will be accessible on the web and it will also serve as a reference for rural tourism organizations developing new quality systems. Project web site .
- EU PHARE programme project: "A Common Development Strategy of Rural Tourism in the Baltic countries - an Open Source Information System for Small and Micro Enterprises in Rural Areas" (2003-2004) is aimed at development of common open source information and reservation system primarily for the Baltic countries, but easily adaptable for use in other pre-accession countries. RTME specific multi language design, web based interface, source code accessibility, license free deployment platform are all highlights of the system. One of the main results will be stronger integration of the Baltic RT, such as common marketing, data standards, cross country data analysis as well as common platform for future development projects.
Project web site

Latvian eco-labeling project
"Development of the criteria for the "Green Certificate", implementation and control in rural areas and small towns in Latvia" is being implemented by the Latvian Country Tourism Association, financially supported by the EC LIFE program and the Latvian Environment Protection Fund. Project duration: October 5, 2001 to September 30, 2004.
The aim of the project is to develop environment friendly tourism in rural areas and small towns, providing for: protection of ecosystems and biological diversity, preservation of natural landscapes, cultural and historical heritage, rational use of natural resources, prevention and control of environment pollution and disturbance and life quality improvement of the local communities.
What is the "Green Certificate"? The "Green Certificate" (GC) is an eco-label assigned to the vacation sites: country houses, vacation cottages, guest houses and camping in the countryside and small towns of Latvia, which save natural resources and use them rationally, offer environment friendly tourist activities, healthy, locally produced food and extensive information on the local natural, cultural and historical attractions. GC is one of few European eco-labels dealing exclusively with small-scale accommodation. Important is that this eco-label is being assigned not only for the environmental friendly practices, but also for the high quality of tourism services! (Saving water resources should not mean lack of water for guests, saving soap powder should not mean dirty bedclothes!) So the GC keyword is balance between tourism service and environmental quality!
Why do we need an eco-label? Rural tourism establishments in Latvia are rather small and not able to do powerful individual marketing on the national, Baltic and European level. The GC is a tool, which can help tourists to find information on the vacation properties offering eco-tourism products and guarantee particular quality standards. Talking about environmental situation, Latvia in comparison with many other European countries does not have to worry about: "How to rehabilitate", the problem is: "How to preserve"! The rural tourism providers should understand and believe in the "green" idea: feel the balance between capacity, tourist flow and profit - that is the reason why an eco-label is so important! Sometimes "more" is "less", if tourism providers will understand it, Latvia will be one of few countries offering a real and natural rural tourism.
How does the "Green Certificate" support the tourism providers?
The GC provides for:
Recognition by domestic and foreign guests through specific marketing activities: different information materials (the series "Green Holidays", catalogue "Country Holidays", leaflets, posters, stickers, distributed in international travel trade fairs), information about GC vacation properties in Association's web site and in a special GC project web site, video featuring the GC vacation properties, regular information supply to Latvian and foreign mass media and participation in international eco-label associations and advertisement in international eco-tourism publications (press, brochures and web sites).
Education about rational use of resources, environment-friendly construction and top quality achievement through different training materials, local seminars and international conferences.
Use of the GC logo, an affirmation of a high quality environment friendly rural tourism product, for the promotion of the vacation site's services in various publications, media etc.
What does the "Green Certificate" offer to tourists? The GC helps to recognize specific eco-tourism products, guarantees high quality of tourism service and gives the possibility to contribute to the sustainable tourism development!

Project activities
After studying the environmental situation in vacation properties in Latvia and accumulating the European eco-labeling experience the GC criteria was developed, the National Certification Commission was set up and the certification of the vacation properties in Latvia was started.
To promote environment friendly practices a special GC project web site with information chapters for tourism providers, tourists and mass media was created. 4 international conferences on sustainable tourism questions are organized during the project (the second will take place on 24.01.2003). The Association takes part in different international travel trade fairs and there is also an active co-operation with international environment and tourism organizations (the Association is member in ECEAT, ECOTRANS, EUROGITE).
Within the project each GC vacation property has to work out an environmental plan, in which providers estimate environmental impact of their properties according to a set of environmental indicators, formulate the environmental protection goal, define the environment protection measures and set deadline for their implementation. According to the plan providers can achieve rational and economical use of water and energy resources, reduce environment pollution with waste and sewage and raise environmental awareness of the staff and visitors.
Until the end of the year 2002 there will be 5 training materials for tourism providers published: "Biological diversity and its preservation", "Nature friendly tourist activities", "Environment friendly building and furnishing materials in rural tourism", "Sustainable use of natural resources - hints for rural tourism providers", "Latvian festivities and traditions in rural tourism offer".
In spring 2003 4 different type vacation properties will be selected as demonstration sites. The demo sites will develop and implement their environmental plans. A video will be made featuring environment protection activities of the demo sites and these sites will host experience exchange seminars to familiarize other rural tourism providers with environment friendly practices.

Expected project results
In environmental field there will be a comprehensive review of the existing situation in rural tourism in Latvia available, environmental control system implemented in vacation properties and awareness, reduction and control of the negative environmental impact improved.
As an economic result there is expected a preservation of nature and sustainable tourism development, reduction of operational costs for vacation properties due to economical use of resources and development of the production and processing sector in rural areas due to the use of locally manufactured building materials and local foods.
Finally, GC will maintain a positive image as offering a high quality, personal service product in contrast to mass tourism. Domestic and international tourists will increasingly recognize GC as a sign of environmental quality and quality of their holidays, and RT providers will show increasing environmental awareness and will strive to meet the eco-labeling criteria.

Conclusion - problems in eco-labeling process
For an eco-label itself to be sustainable international co-operation and recognition is necessary. National eco-labels should incorporate internationally valid, comparable criteria and, at the same time, to be relevant in the national context, ensure protection and maintenance of the national environmental values.
There should be a balance between environmental and tourism service quality. Eco-label should be equal to quality label also for tourist services, which is not ensured by the most of the eco-labels now days, because the inspectors usually do not check the necessary minimum tourist quality criteria's. That creates threats for eco-label brand name and decrease demand and trust of tourists.
Co-operation and understanding between tourism and environmental specialists is a must. It is not a secret that environmental protectionists often regard tourism as a threat to nature and they actively campaign against tourism development. Co-operation and finding a common language between these two sectors would rather help to direct tourism development (which is inevitable, anyway) along the path of sustainability and avoid danger and damage to environment. Eco-labels, where needs of both - tourism development and environment protection - are taken into account, can be a useful and practical tool for finding and attaining common goals.
Important is also the co-operation between tourism providers and tourists. Tourists should be educated step by step, and that is a task of aware tourism providers. The rural tourist will exist, as long as there will be balance between offer and demand, capacity and tourist movement. As the Association is an organization between these both groups, it is easier for us to guide the process in the right direction - the direction of sustainability!

You are welcome to our next International conference in Latvia - June 2004. Follow the information in the web site: