Letter from Europe

Jurmala, a victim of circumstance

Issue no. 2015/30

Picture above: The former bath house in Jurmala, Latvia, erected in the early 20th century (photo © Sergiy Palamarchuk / dreamstime.com).


Imagine a gorgeous sweep of white quartz sand backed by low dunes and pine forest. Add in several mineral water springs of therapeutic value and an endless supply of curative mud - and there you have Jurmala's prime assets. The Latvian coastal resort is not so very far from the capital Riga.

Dear fellow travellers

The deckchairs have been stacked away for the winter, and some hotels are already closing down for the season. The Latvian coastal resort of Jurmala has not had the easiest of years.

Imagine a gorgeous sweep of white quartz sand backed by low dunes and pine forest. Add in several mineral water springs of therapeutic value and an endless supply of curative mud - and there you have Jurmala's prime assets. It is not so very far from Riga, so close in fact that the families of the mercantile classes in nineteenth-century Riga - mainly Baltic Germans - referred to the area as Riga Strand (meaning Riga Beach).

The Baltic Germans developed Jurmala into a fashionable resort. They built wooden summer cottages in much the same way as well-heeled Germans did at other places around the Baltic, such as Nida on the Curonian Spit in Lithuania and at Rauschen (in one-time East Prussia, nowadays Svetlogorsk in Russia's Kaliningrad Oblast). Jurmala was especially successful in developing all the infrastructure of a leading health resort and by the 1880s, when railways connected Jurmala with Russia's great cities, this little community was a big player in the emerging tourism industry of the late tsarist period.

But the really good times in Jurmala came much later when, as part of the Soviet Union, the resort developed into a premier league tourist destination for the socialist world. It rivalled the Black Sea Riviera as a place to go for a good holiday. Nikita Khrushchev came to Jurmala; so did Leonid Brezhnev. A summer trip to the seaside was a valued reward for millions of Soviet workers who met their production targets and spoke up for the Party; they were rewarded with a putevka, the coloured voucher which was the essential currency for Soviet vacations. It covered the cost of accommodation, food and entertainment - and in some cases health treatments too. The Jurmala putevki were especially coveted.

Jurmala pulled the crowds, but the fractured demise of the entire Soviet system in the early 1990s threatened to rob Jurmala of its core market. Voucher tourism to the newly independent Baltic states disappeared overnight. But so good were the memories of Jurmala that many families from the new Russian Federation still scrimped and saved to be able to pay for a summer holiday in Jurmala. Old Soviet-era concrete hotels were slowly refurbished, though they still looked out of place in a resort famous for its wooden architecture.

But the hapless deterioration in relations between the European Union and the Russian Federation over the last two years has stemmed the flow of Russian tourists to Latvia. The fall in the value of the Russian rouble hasn't helped either. Jurmala has lost its appeal in the Russian market. One of the showpiece events of the year in Jurmala was the New Wave festival. Launched in 2005, it quickly became a hugely popular competition for young singers. At the tenth annual event, held in 2014, Latvia refused to grant visas to three Russian entrants, claiming that the lyrics of the contestants' songs were too pro-Kremlin. It's no surprise, perhaps, that the festival's organisers opted to leave Latvia.

New Wave 2015 is taking place in Sochi this week. Jurmala's loss, and one up for the Black Sea Riviera resort which has already hosted the Olympics and festivals galore. It is just one example of how the events in Ukraine are having reverberations across Europe.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

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