The history of the Latvian Tourism Association "Country Traveller"

"Country Traveller" (Lauku ceļotājs) is the oldest and strongest rural tourism organization in Latvia, founded in 1993. The aim of the association is the development of rural tourism in Latvia in the general context of the rural economy, in cooperation with agriculture, local government, nature protection and other sectors. "Lauku ceļotājs" represents the interests of its members, participates in the development of business-friendly policies, serves as a professional information forum and marketing platform. The members of "Lauku ceļotājs" are rural tourism, agricultural, craft entrepreneurs, local governments, structural units of state institutions and organizations in all regions of Latvia.

The Soviet Empire collapsed during the late 1980s and early 1990s.  It was a system that had no private property, business operations and many other economic, social and political categories.  There were no farms, because rural residents worked at kolkhozes.  The first "sprouts" of entrepreneurship began to appear in the late 1980s in the form of co-operatives, but most people were not yet accustomed to the endless change in external circumstances and uncertainties in many areas of life.  They were also accustomed to the idea that without any knowledge or experience, they had been "tossed" into the capitalist system and free market, where Latvia had to compete with countries that had much more experience.  Many people changed their professions and lifestyles.  Some people got "stuck" as hostages related to their long-term situational changes, trying to preserve their previous lives and ways of thinking about things.

Asnate Ziemele has directed the "Country Traveller" countryside tourism association since its beginnings.  This report focuses on the investment of the agency in the development of such history, as well as on the history of how the organisation was established.

"Country Traveller" 20th anniversary brochure can be viewed here.

The data and information reflected in the video were compiled from 1991 to 2017.

Information materials prepared by "Lauku ceļotājs" - guides, maps and other types of informative and educational materials in which "Lauku ceļotājs" has been the main author, partner or co-author - can be found here: list

1991: The beginnings of rural tourism

1991 was the year that was recorded in history as the age of barricades and the August putsch in Moscow.  People in the countryside and in cities struggled to survive, trying to find work and existence forms.  The "accustomed" economic model had collapsed, but a new one had not yet been established.  The state and local governance system in Latvia was gradually established.  People who lived in the countryside, particularly those who lived alongside the sea or internal bodies of water rented rooms to urban families that wanted to spend their summers in the countryside.  Some had done so during the Soviet era, when that was not permitted.  Asnate Ziemele was graduated from the Jāzeps Vītols Academy of Music in 1992 and moved with her family to a farm that she established in what is now the Ķegums Administrative District.

1992: A time of radical reforms

1992 was the year when the Russian military began to withdraw from Latvia.  The government implemented radical economic reforms and launched the privatisation of state-owned enterprises.  An economic crisis began, and during the mid-1990s, there was a very serious financial and baking crisis which took six years to overcome.  Asnate Ziemele experienced the tragic death of her father, which meant that the family had lost its primary wage earner.  The family had to think about other ways of managing the farm.  After the restoration of Latvia's independence, various other countries offered help, including English language courses that were organised by the Peace Corps.  Asnate attended language courses and learned about countryside tourism in the United States, which mostly involved B&B services.

1993: Country Traveller officially becomes operational

On March 5, 1993, the Latvian lats was reinstated as the country's national currency (1 EUR = 0,70 LVL) and the economic situation began to stabilise.  Ziemele visited the farms and prepared the first brochure of tourist accommodations. Some of the farms that were listed in that brochure are still working today.  Asnate spotted an ad in the newspaper Lauku Avīze, and that led to her introduction to countryside businessman Vilnis Baltais, who had established the "Country Traveller" company.  Asnate and Vilnis visited the Ministry of Agriculture (the building of which was popularly known as the "Silage Tower"), and the country tourism social organisation was established on June 18, 1993.  The hall was full of people, with some finding no seats.  Ten people were needed to officially establish the organisation, and these included Asnate Ziemele, Vilnis Baltais, Elita Orniņa, Inta Lūse, Ēriks Pīlādzis and others.  Not everyone believed in the idea of country tourism.  Some 300 farm owners got in touch with the organisation, which sent people to inspect around 1/3 of them.  The first reservations were made, and the database at that time was a notebook which chequered pages which cost 0.27 roubles.   It was used to register clients and accommodations.  It soon became clear that the organisation needed a quality system and marketing.  Initially the organisation employed just one person, then hired a part-time employee, and eventually had three employees.

1994: First participation in the exhibition "Balttour"

"Country Traveller" had its first stand at the international "Balttour" tourism exhibition in Rīga.  The cost for renting  the stand was incommensurate, and the organisation had to seek financing.  One of the sponsors was Vilnis Baltais, and seven Latvian regions helped to cover the cost, as well.  "Country Traveller" also began to look for international contacts, sending people on experience exchange visits to Finland and Denmark.

First catalogue!

The organisation published its first catalogue, "Leisure in the Countryside," which was printed in Finland.  The catalogue was partly financed by the Latvian Ministry for Environmental Protection and Regional Development (VARAM).  It was published in English, and all of the tourism destinations offered accommodations for USD 20 a night.  The salary of the association's employees, by comparison was round LVL 50 per month (~ 70 EUR)  The association had some 20 members, and they welcomed 100 clients during the first year.  Road signs were written by hand.  The executive director of the association, Elita Orniņa, visited all of the destinations to see what they were offering, and she remembers all of the descriptions that she wrote at that time.  Not all farm owners had telephones, which meant that contacts were maintained with neighbours or, in some cases, the local parish building, from which a local courier brought information to the association member on his bicycle.

1995: The first general meeting of the association

In late 1995, "Country Traveller" organised its first general meeting to discuss initial results and to discuss the further development of country tourism.  The meeting was held at a sanatorium in Baldone, which had no heat.  It was cold, but the situation in Latvia was such that this was not seen as a matter of force majeure.  Participants danced to keep warm.  The meeting took no decisions, but information was exchanged.  Because people in many areas of business in Latvia lacked experience, "Country Traveller" began to organise active exchange trips to European countries for Latvian businesspeople, as well as people from local governments, educational facilities and NGOs.  Each ad in Lauku Avīze led to one or two potential groups of travellers, and an average of two groups were sent on the trips each month.  "Country Traveller" employees spent a long time at foreign embassies to handle visas.  Profits from these trips were invested in the organisation.  The situation in 1995 can be characterised with the price of services at that time.  The Roja Hotel, for instance, rented its standard rooms for LVL 18 (25 EUR)  The administrator earned LVL 38 (54 EUR) a month, electricity cost 0.01 cent/kW, the real estate tax amounted to LVL 35 (49 EUR) for the year, and interest rates on loans were around 28%.

1996: Establishing international relations

In 1996, "Country Traveller" continued to seek new experiences and joined the European "EuroGites" country tourism federation.  "Country Traveller" was recommended for membership by the president of the German Country Tourism Association, Meyer Gresshof.  Latvia was little known in Europe, and the attitude of some countries at international organisations was rather reticent and sometimes haughty.  It took "EuroGites" some time to decide on whether "Country Traveller" should be admitted as a member before the decision was taken to do so.  "EuroGites" provided a good platform to learn new experiences and that were adapted and utilised in Latvia.  There was an increase among clients in Latvia in country tourism, and the number of reservations rose quickly.  Mobile phones were not yet common, so employees took reservations at home in the evening and tried to ring farm owners on their analogue telephones.  The "Country Traveller" statutes were translated into English for the first time.  The organisation's catalogue listed 46 farms, and there was a total of around 2,500 clients during the course of 1996.  Client demands vis-à-vis the quality of services were on the rise.

1997: The Golden Hammer

In 1997, "Country Traveller" joined with partners from Iceland to apply for the first EU Leonardo da Vinci programme project, the aim being to produce materials to train business people in the area of country tourism.  As technologies developed, "Country Traveller" established its Website,   The advertising industry nominated it as the best Internet homepage in the "Golden Hammer" competition.  The Kaimo turizmas organisation was established in neighbouring Lithuania, initially offering 17 single family farms.  In future, it would become a staunch partner for "Country Traveller" in many different projects.  Also in 1997, Asnate Ziemele represented the country tourism association of the three Baltic States at a conference in Rejkjavik, where she presented a paper about the country tourism industry and its developmental goals.

1998: The implementation of the first projects

SIA "L Ceļotājs" was established in 1998, fully owned by the "Country Traveller" association.  This became necessary because revenues from reservations were nearing the amount that was permitted for social organisations.  The new company began to implement its first projects.  The "Country Traveller" office installed an electronic bank payment terminal, and E-mail was increasingly used to communicate with clients and farm owners.  The association had some 80 members.  The cost of overnight accommodations with breakfast ranged from LVL 5-15 per night (7-21 EUR), or LVL 60-130 (85-184 EUR) per week. It soon became clear that insurance was needed for country tourism services.  The VARAM produced a targeted country tourism development programme,  which spoke to goals related to the industry's development.  37 country tourism businesses got subsidies at a total of LVL 80,500 (114 541 EUR).

1999: Green Certificate initiative

In 1999,  "Country Traveller" submitted its first grant application to the EU's PHARE programme.  The grant was approved, but distrust at PHARE in the organisers in Latvia was such that the implementation of the project was delegated not to "Country Traveller," but instead to an advertising agency.  The association got about one-half of the money that was granted.  Despite this, the project led to the further development of the association's information and technological grid, including an online reservation system which made everyday work and contacts with clients and farm owners much easier.  The association signed an agreement with SIA Bankserviss on providing services related to electronic payment cards.  Also in 1999, "Country Traveller" launched the "Green Certificate" initiative for farms that were operating in an environmentally friendly way.  The "Green Certificate" programme is still in place today, and it is one of just a few initiatives in the area of tourism in Latvia that has been so sustainable in terms of time and space.

2000: Rural development

In 2000, country tourism companies in Latvia first got access to the SAPARD Programme, which was one of the pre-accession sources of funding from the EU.  "Country Traveller" did a lot of lobbying to point to the programme's positive influence in the development of regions in the countryside.  The SAPARD money helped tourism facilities to improve the quality of their infrastructure, because before then, there had only been small subsidies for these goals.  The concept of "Euro-renovations" appeared in the industry.  Many businesspeople used money from the programme, because it offered substantial support intensity.  The quality of interior facilities improved very substantially.  Those who did not access the funds were forced to spend their own money on such improvements and to think about other products that would enhance their competitiveness.  Most country tourism facilities at that time were based on existing buildings, but now the owners started to build separate weekend and guesthouses for their clients.  The Estonian country tourism association Eesti Maaturism was established in 2000, and it, too, would become a partner for "Country Traveller" in many different projects.

2001: Customer growth

The first EU LIFE programme project was launched in 2001.  It was the first one in Latvia, and it helped to raise the importance of the "Green Certificate" environmental quality mark in the country and then all of Europe.  The media gradually started to print headlines to say that "SAPARD resources are being used to build private homes."  Only one specific case of that type is known, but these media reports overshadowed honest businesspeople and discredited the overall idea of the funding.  SAPARD was eventually cancelled, and the funding was no longer available to businesses in the area of country tourism.  The association had 150 members, including 21 new ones.  Client numbers increased by 20%, and 80,000 people visited the "Country Traveller" homepage.  A new section,  "Professional information," was added to the Website.  The organisation also ensured that farm owners who offered country tourism services would receive funding from agricultural subsidy programmes.  The association also published its first tourist map, "Latvia for Active Leisure."

2002: Worth to see!

In 2002, "Country Traveller" published its first tourist map, "Worth Seeing -- a Map for Travel in Latvia."  It marked out the whole generation of thematic tourism maps that the organisation released in future years.  Statistics in 2002 were very positive, with 210 members, including 50 new ones in the association.  Client numbers once again rose by 20%, and there were many tourists from Germany.  The first 34 "Green Certificates" were awarded.  The Environmental Film Studio helped to produce a video on the certificates that was meant as an instructional resource for owners of country tourism facilities.  "Country Traveller" took part in several international exhibitions with informative materials and produced six new educational programmes for businesspeople such as "Organising Seminars in the Countryside."  A "Worth Seeing" map and a map for Baltic travels were released.

2003: The celebration of decade

In 2003, "Country Traveller" celebrated its 10th anniversary at the "Valguma Pasaule" resort.  The minister for environmental protection and regional development, Raimonds Vējonis, attended the event.  During the course of the decade, "Country Traveller" had become one of the largest and strongest tourism associations in the Baltic States with more than 200 members, a wealth of project-related experience and eleven employees.  As the main organiser or partner, the association had taken part in 87 projects with total financing of EUR 707,440.  For some time, the association had been thinking about the idea that "country tourism is not just a bed," and that was the spark for the idea of a "Country Goodies" project -- farms which offer visitors a chance to learn about life on the farm, as well as locally produced products.  The "Country Goodies" brand would become widely used in the area of tourism, with many administrative districts posting information about it on their homepages and in print publications.  "Travel the Baltic States" was a map that was published in 2003, and the first tourism guide in the "Country Goodies" series was issued, featuring 62 farms.  Let's travel together!  Statistics show that tourists in Latvia spent 197,340 nights at various accommodations in 2003, and the overall room occupation rate for businesses was 13%.  Tourists spent a total of LVL 1,800,000 (~ 2 561 169 EUR) in Latvia during the course of the decade.

2004: International conference organized by the Country Traveller

Latvia became a member state of the European Union in 2004, and the Baltic States became popular tourist destinations.  There was in increase in tourism numbers by 30% in comparison to the previous year.  Three major EU projects were finished, and "Country Traveller" presented the results at a conference that it organised.  The conference was opened by a representative of the World Tourism Organisation, and 120 people from 30 countries took part.  "Country Traveller" published a tourist map of the Baltic States, the second guide in the "Country Goodies" series, and a guidebook titled "Active Leisure."  By the end of 2004, the organisation had registered 294 rural accommodations with 4,051 beds in its database.  The average number of employees at rural accommodations (vacation country and guesthouses) was three, and in most cases two of them are family members.  Clients of "Country Traveller" spent approximately 287,700 nights at these venues, and that was 31% more than in 2003.  The average load for the accommodations was around 19%.  An important issue was whether the owner of a small farmhouse who served pancakes for breakfast had to satisfy the same requirements as those of a large hotel.

2005: Rural tourism is not just a bed!

At the beginning of 2005, "Country Traveller" organised a rural tourism conference to talk about the state's role in developing tourism products and in facilitating the arrival of tourists.  The period between 2005 and 2008 was very favourable for country tourism, albeit with certain consequences.  These were known as the "years of plenty," and the government's economic approach was described as "pedal to the metal."  People irresponsibly took out loans and often engaged in ill-considered spending.  Demand for the country tourism services that existed during the "years of plenty" was more than before and after that period.  Employees of the association began to argue that "country tourism is not just a bed."  Because of other services, "Country Traveller" employees established and tested hiking, biking, boat, skiing and car routes in the three Baltic States, preparing descriptions, guidebooks and tourism maps.  In partnership with the Ministry for the Environment (VM), "Country Traveller" established a new nomination -- Eco-Tourism Farm in a popular competition that was organised by the VM and the Ministry of Agriculture, "Sower."  Participants had to have the "Green Certificate" at their farms.  Also in 2005, "Country Traveller" released a new version of its homepage with a new on-line reservation system.  The organisation also released a new tourism map from the series "Worth Seeing."  It also replaced the design of its homepage, which is available in four languages.

2006: Let's not kill Grandma's pancakes!

During the course of 2006, the country's bureaucratic apparatus expanded and often encumbered the business environment with various administrative limitations.  Sometimes the interpretation of norms and the application of administrative fines depended on the understanding and personal interpretation of the specific inspector.  Another incommensurate burden was that country farms, which often were family-sized companies, faced the same administrative food and veterinary requirements that apply to larger restaurants and hotels.  It also seemed that the inspectors were interested in applying punishments.  One woman in the country tourism industry remembered that inspectors from various institutions visited her venue 48 times during the course of a single year.  These demands meant that many country venues stopped feeding clients, because that was administratively complicated and economically disadvantageous.  "Don't Kill Grandma's Pancakes!" became the association's new slogan.  "Country Traveller" began to work more actively with the ministries of economics, agriculture, finances and environment to reduce the administrative burden.  During a country tourism conference on February 3, 2006, the delegates adopted a resolution to call on Prime Minister Aigars Kalvītis and several related ministries to satisfy five demands related to easier rules in the areas of business, taxes, construction, competition, etc.  In partnership with the Ministry of Agriculture and the Food and Veterinary Service, "Country Traveller" drafted new rules and guidelines that were adapted to the needs of country tourism companies and were understandable.  The guidelines remain in effect and are regularly updated.  The association released its third "Country Goodies" guidebook, a well as a travel map, "Natural Trails in Latvia."  It also released two handbooks for water tourism business and information providers.

2007: Country Traveller development

In 2007, 10 years after the launch of the "Country Traveller" homepage, country tourism businesspeople could establish their own homepages on the basis of the association's website.  The "Ecotourism" prize in the "Sower" competition was received by Ilze Stabulniece, who owns a horse farm and used the 5,000 LVL (7114 EUR) prize to put a new roof on her stable.  "Country Traveller" released a guidebook, "Biking Along Protected Natural Territories," and a map, "Travel by Bike."  The publications were presented at the Ministry of the Environment, and the event was opened by Environment Minister Raimonds Vējonis.

2008: Country Traveler expeditions

In 2008, the association won an EEZ project that was aimed at establishing environmentally friendly tourism products in Latvia's especially protected natural territories.  There were many positive initiatives as part of the project, including tourism plans, guidelines for sustainable tourism development in NATURA 2000 territories, tourism guidebooks, as well as maps for hikers, water tourists, bicyclists, etc.  "Country Traveller" employees bought a boat and sailed down some 50 rivers in Latvia to establish a water tourism guidebook.   The content and ideas were used in the water tourism market materials related to projects that were being organised by the other Baltic States.

2009: Cooperation for nature protection purposes

2009 was a good year for partnership among tourism and environmental protection people.  As part of the LIFE programme, the project was implemented at the Slītere National Park.   "Country Traveller" served as a mediator to bring together businesspeople, employees of the Environmental Protection Board (DAP), local government people and others who were concerned about the future development of the park.  This project involved many initiatives that were kept in place long after the end of the project.  These included "Slītere Travel Days" (with the experience later being taken over by other Latvian especial natural protected territories.  Latvia also had one of the first successful experiments in terms of counting up visitors electronically.  This, too, is still in place.  One of the main benefits from the project was that "Country Traveller" prepared active tourism routes, the first  Latvian National Park Tourism Guidebook" in Latvia and the Baltic States, and the "Baltic National Park Tourism Guidebook."  There were active guidelines on marking routes (an addition to the unified DAP style for protected territories).  "Country Traveller" published a travel map about scenic locations in Latvia, as well as a guidebook for water tourists.

2010: Crisis-time opportunities

Latvia suffered a serious economic crisis in 2010.  "Country Traveller" survived it successfully thanks to several previously arranged projects as part of the Agora, Interreg, Life, Leonardo and other programmes.  Provides of country tourism services had difficult lives, because many of them had previously relied on large sports events and other events that were often organised by government institutions and major companies during the pre-crisis period.  These cost a lot of money.  Demand for country tourism services sank by about 70% during the crisis.  About 1/5 of businesspeople went bankrupt, sold their homes (or had them taken over by banks), or joined other sectors.  Those who survived the crisis improved their services because low-quality services could be sold before the crisis.  They also sold services that were not offered before the crisis because they did not seem promising or advantageous (providing food to visitors, for instance).  Many service providers changed their approach toward clients and became more hospitable.  In 2010 "Country Traveller" persuaded the government to amend the law on alcoholic beverages to say that people at home could produce alcoholic beverages at home under certain rules and also sell them to clients.  There was an explosion in the production of wine in Latvia.  Publications during the year included a map for hikers in Latvia, a tourism guide to the Slītere National Park, a bicycle map for Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, a brochure on environmentally friendly and sustainable nature observation principles, as well as a botanical guidebook which helped people to identify various types of plants.

2011: International Nature Tourism Conference

In 2011, "Country Traveller" organised an international natural tourism conference, with 258 people involved in environmental protection and tourism industries from 18 countries took part.  There was a wealth of valuable exchange of information, as well as new contacts.  Client numbers in the country tourism sector rose by 30% over the previous year (major growth), and Russian tourists were of great importance in this regard.  The association published a tourism map for environmental weekends and the military heritage, as well as tourism development plans for the Ancient Abava River alley, the Rāzna National Park, the Dviete wetlands and the Northern Vidzeme coastline.  "Country Traveller" also prepared and published a unique publication -- "Guidelines for Coastline Construction."  The aim was to protect the Liv heritage along the "Liv Coastline."  At a meeting on November 15 at Medzābaki, participants declared that they were "cautiously optimistic" about the previous tourism season.  The association launched a project aimed at using treasures from cultural heritage on country tourism and invited others to take part.  Tours to observe birds, insects and mushrooms were organised.

2012: Growth of rural tourism

In 2012, Asnate Ziemele was elected to the board of the EuroGites European country tourism organisation, as well as to the European Charter Commission, which awards sustainable tourism certificates to national parks in Europe.  Also in 2012, "Country Traveller" launched a tourism marketing project to popularise the Latvian countryside among schoolchildren, families with children and individual and group travellers.  A forest guidebook was published.  2012 was seen as a successful year, because the number of nights spent by tourists rose by 10% in comparison to the previous year.  German tourists returned to Latvia's countryside, which also became more and more popular among Russian tourists.

2013: Country Traveller - 20th anniversary

"Country Traveller" celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2013. In partnership with the Ministry of Culture and the State Cultural Monument Protection Inspectorate, the association launched a new initiative -- the "Latvian Heritage" cultural sign.  It was awarded to business people who provided visitors with Latvian traditions that were turned into tourism projects. The commission which awards this sign involves many cultural workers who are popular in Latvia. "Latvian Heritage" is still in place, and the number of business people who had received it by the end of 2016 was 72. Under the "Worth Seeing" series, the association published a map that was focused on the cultural heritage of Latvia and Estonia.

2014: "Open House Day" initiative

2014 began with a presentation by "Country Traveller" at the "Balttour 2014" exhibition and a public discussion at the Ministry of Agriculture about farms that were open to visitors.  Active work began on preparing a Latvian culinary route, and this involved informative seminars, as well as inspections of saloons which offered Latvian cuisine.  Work continued on a marketing campaign to popularise country tourism and to ensure the relevant projects throughout Latvia.  One activity was "Open House Day," when 129 farms opened up their doors to visitors.  The event was repeated in September to support local producers and their products.  Several projects that had been launched in previous years were finished.  "Country Traveller" published its fourth "Country Goodies" guidebook, a culinary map for Latvia, a Latvian heritage map, and three thematic publications on Latvian cuisine, organising for seasonal holidays, as well as Latvian architecture, interior design and landscaping.

2015: Green farming

Early in 2015, "Country Traveller" and the Agriculture Organisation Partnership Council (LOSP) called on the government to reduce burdens on home manufacturers and country tourism farms.  In line with technological developments, the organisation's homepage was adapted for use in mobile phones.  On June 13 and 4, "Country Traveller" and 97 farms once again opened up the doors.  This encouraged urban residents to visit the countryside.  The "Turbas" leisure complex organised a conference on green farming.  In the autumn, the association joined with the Farmer Saeima to organise a "Country Day," during which 50 farms welcomed visitors.  Several large farms were involved in the process, which meant that visitors could steer a combine that was led by GPS and other modern technologies.  Latvian President Raimonds Vējonis became the patron of the "Green Certificate" and presented it to 14 farms at the Mežotne Castle.  An innovation for senior citizens from Latvia and other countries was the "Silver Bag," which listed destinations that were friendly to seniors.  A bike map for the three Baltic States was published, as were brochures such as "Green Weekend," "Well-Being Tourism in Latvia's Countryside,"  "Map of Latvian Heritage," "Travel in Latvia" and "A Hiking Map for Latvia."

2016: The light is turned off in the Latvian countryside

For the first time since the economic crisis, average revenues in the country tourism sector dropped by 10-15% in 2016 even though the number of clients had not declined very much.  Reasons included higher taxes, more expensive raw materials, higher electricity prices and wages, etc.  The "Country Traveller" analysed the situation and wrote an open letter to the relevant ministries and other institutions:  "Legislators are Switching off the Lights in Latvia's Countryside."  The answers that were received, sadly, did nothing to address the situation.  The association delegated a representatives to actively defend small companies at a working group that was set up by the parliamentary Social and Labour Committee on mandatory social security contributions in Latvia.  During the second half of the year, "Country Traveller" published a guidebook to tasty cheeses.  This was part of the "Baltic Sea Culinary Route" project.  The association worked actively on popularising Latvian Statehood routes.  The number of "Latvian Heritage" sign recipients rose to 72.  "Green Certificate" rules were updated in accordance with changes in technologies.  Late in the year, a delegation of businesspeople from Azerbaijan visited Latvia and spent a week touring Latvian farms.  The minister for environmental protection and regional development, Kaspars Gerhards, provided prizes for the best projects in the LIFE 5 programme, and one of the recipients was the "Green Certificate" project, which was launched by "Country Traveller" in 2000.  It was declared to be the most important national project.

2017: Baltic Coastal Hiking

2017 was largely spent under the sign of the "Sea Path."  This was an unprecedented active tourism project that was initiated by "Country Traveller" as part of an international EU-financed projects.  The association partnered with the Kurzeme Planning Region, the Vidzeme Tourism Association, coastline local governments and partners in Estonia to prepare a 1,200-kilometre hiking route along the coastline of Latvia and Estonia from Nida to Tallinn.  Juris Smaļinskis hiked the entire route to research it.  A separate homepage was prepared for the "Sea Path" project.  The project attracted a great deal of media response, and in 2018, "Country Traveller" became a member of the European Ramblers Association.  The State Cultural Monuments Inspectorate suggested that seven Latvian Statehood routes be set up to represent the origins of the Latvian state, and "Country Traveller" did exactly that.  A special brochure was prepared for Japanese tourists.  It became something of a bestseller.  The association also became involved in several other European projects such as "Agricultural Tradition Heritage in Agritourism in Latvia and Lithuania," "Restoration of Traditional Fruits, Vegetables and Decorative Species: Historical Garden Tourism" and "The Livonian Culinary Route." This latter brochure was based on the cultural heritage of Livonia.

2018: Centennial values

2018 was the year of Latvia's centennial, and "Country Traveller" took par with a tourism map, "Travel in Latvia During 100+ Years" to mark out the most popular places in Latvia for historical tourism.  These included historical gardens, as well as a network of food manufacturers involved in the Livonian project.  The number of "Latvian Heritage" cultural sign recipients exceeded 100 by the end of the year.  "Country Traveller" published a Latvian statehood map and joined with the Latvian Road Directorate to advertise it on inter-city buses and trains.  Early in 2018, the association prepared guidebooks about Suiti culture and the Livonian Coastline.  Later in the year, the Livonian culture space was registered on the list of national cultural heritage in Latvia.  More work is needed to attain UNESCO status for the Livonian heritage.  Latvia's centennial also involved a battle between "Country Traveller" and various local governments which were organising dishonest competition against countryside tourists.  There were many examples of this all over Latvia.  Local governments built hotels, offered room rentals and rental of active tourism and sport equipment, and offered hospitality services, as well.  The summer was unusually long, beginning in May and ending in late October.

2019: Finding adventures in the Forest Trail

Early in 2019, "Country Traveller" published a guidebook to the long "Sea Path" trail, a handbook on agritourism in the area of historical heritage, a culinary map called "The Taste of Livonia," as well as four tourism guidebooks about the Livonian coastline, the Suiti region, and Kihnu Island and the Setos lands of Estonia. There was active work on developing and marketing new tourism products for tourists from Japan. The traditional "Open House" event in the countryside was organised from May 4-6, and for the first time, Lithuanian companies also took part. 194 farms (126 in Latvia and 68 in Lithuania) participated. On June 1 and 2, in partnership with Livonian and Suiti NGOs, the first "Home Cafeteria Day" event was organised, with home manufacturers offer special foods and demonstrating their skills. The "Sea Path" trail was marked together with partnerships.  The Automobile Transport Directorate helped to publicise a plan on reaching the Sea Path via public transportation. The idea of long hiking routes in the Baltic States continued. "Country Traveller" joined with partners in Latvia and Estonia on a new "Forest Path" route, which is more than 1,100 km in length. Once again, Juris Smaļinskis hiked the entire route.  The Sea Path was officially opened during a ceremony on September 13 and 14, with a public hike from Lepanina in Estonia to Ainaži in Latvia. More than 200 hikers took part.  2019 was the 20th anniversary of the "Green Certificate," and farms which had earned it were summoned to the Rīga Castle for a meeting on November 6.  Later in the year, two new projects were launched - "Rye Road" and "Cider Route."

2020: Emergency is not an obstacle!

2020 will go down in history as the year when the Covid-19 virus erupted.  Tourism, dining and hospitality industries experienced an unprecedented situation when emergency situations were proclaimed in Latvia and other European and world countries. The consequences of the epidemic will only be understood in future, but work is continuing on various projects. A customary process involves seminars and meetings online via Zoom and other Internet platforms.  Work on the rye and cider routes continued, and the "Forest Path" project got its own homepage. Emergency limitations for healthy people did not keep Latvians from travelling around their own country, and the "Forest Path" and "Sea Path" routes were ideal for this process. A new "Green Certificate" handbook is being prepared, as are a culinary tourism handbook, "Flavours of Livonia," and a handbook on environmentally friendly country tourism services at small companies.  A list of country tourism destinations that welcome people who are under quarantine or self-isolation is being prepared.

2021. gads: Kad neko vairs nevar paredzēt nākotnē ...

2021. gads turpinās ar mājsēdi, taču atšķirībā no Lietuvas iedzīvotājiem, kuri drīkst pārvietoties tikai vienas pašvaldības robežās, Latvijā var brīvi ceļot. Līdz pat marta sākumam ir skaista un īsta ziema, tādēļ atjaunojam distanču slēpošanas trašu sarakstu, kurā ir vairāk nekā 80 trases. Turpinās darbs pie Mežtakas Dienvidu daļas izstrādes, lai pirms tūrisma sezonas informācija jau būtu pieejama mājas lapā. Top militārā mantojuma karte, brošūra, notiek darbs pie Zaļā sertifikāta materiālu un lekciju izstrādes uzņēmējam. "Hikers friendly" zīme šī gada martā jau ir piešķirta 107 uzņēmumiem. Martā "Mežtaka" un "Jūrtaka" tiek iekļauta desmit labāko jauno garās distances pārgājienu maršrutos pasaulē no "Lonely planet", publikācijas parādās citos ārvalstu medijos - franču, beļģu, ukraiņu, krievu un citās valodās. Par spīti ierobežojumiem un nemitīgi mainīgajiem epidemioloģiskās drošības pasākumiem un neskaidro nākotni - kas mūs sagaida vasarā, jau kopš pavasara aktīvi strādājam, lai arī šogad īstenotu "Atvērtās dienas laukos" un "Mājas kafejnīcu dienas". Vasaru jūnijā atklājam ar "Atvērtajām dienām laukos", kurās piedalās rekordliels uzņēmēju skaits - 245 un jau jūlijā visā Latvijā sākās "Mājas kafejnīcu dienas", ko organizējam kopā ar LIAA un pirmo reizi tās notiek visā Latvijā - katru nedēļas nogali no jūlija līdz pat oktobrim, 32 dažādos reģionos un kafejnīcās pārtop 448 sētas un mājas visā Latvijā. Apmeklētāju atsaucība ir krietni lielāka kā bijām gaidījuši un cerējuši, un ir skaidrs - "Mājas kafejnīcu dienas" visā Latvijā ir uz palikšanu ar vairāk kā 500 kafejnīcu gandrīz 50 galamērķos! Taču pandēmija ievieš savas korekcijas gan attiecībā uz ierobežojumiem ēdināšanas pakalpojumu sniedzējiem, gan pārvietošanos pa pasauli, tādēļ sadarbība ar Japānu notiek attālināti. Lai veicinātu videi draudzīgu tūrismu un Zaļā sertifikāta aktivitātes, izveidojam filmu “Zaļās brīvdienas Latvijā”. Projekta “Sidra ceļš” kā viens no rezultātiem ir pasākums, kad pirmo reizi Latvijas sidra dari piedalās konkursā “Latvijas gada vīns”. 4. septembrī notiek Mežtakas Ziemeļu daļas atklāšanas pasākums Ziemeļigaunijā, Lahemā parkā, bet gada nogalē kopā ar Lietuvas partneriem tiek izdoti Mežtakas un Jūrtakas Dienvidu daļu tūrisma ceļveži.

2022. gads: Kovids “paliek ēnā”, jo Krievija uzsāk karu pret Ukrainu! Īstenojam militārā mantojuma projektu

Turpinās darbs pie Jūrtakas (E9) un Mežtakas (E11) Kurzemes un Lietuvas daļas (Dienvidu daļa), tādēļ 23. aprīlī Mežtakas posmā no Kandavas līdz Sabilei organizējam publisku iepazīšanās gājienu, kur piedalās vairāki simti apmeklētāju. Mežtakas Dienvidu daļas atklāšanas gājiens notiek 22. maijā posmā no Snēpeles līdz Kuldīgai. Kaut arī projekts atrodas finiša taisnē, Mežtaka tāpat kā Rīga nekad nebūs gatava – to varēs pilnveidot un pielāgot dažādām mērķauditorijām arī nākotnē. Izdodam abu taku Dienvidu daļu tūrisma ceļvežus, kas ir ļoti pieprasīti. Militārā mantojuma projekta ietvaros aicinām skolēnus un arī visus pārējos mācīties Latvijas militāro vēsturi. Pavasarī kopā ar uzņēmējiem un projekta partneriem dodamies pieredzes apmaiņas braucienā uz Ziemeļpoliju. Izdodam karti un Militārā mantojuma tūrisma ceļvedi, kurā iekļauti 173 objekti ar aprakstiem Latvijā un Igaunijā. Tiem ir liela piekrišana starptautiskajā Valgas militārās vēstures festivālā, kurā piedalāmies ar stendu. Militārā mantojuma projekta rezultāti ir guvuši plašu rezonansi un šis mantojuma veids kā tūrisma produkts kļūst aizvien populārāks. Projekta noslēguma pasākums notiek Okupācijas muzejā. Top “Rudzu grauda recepšu” grāmata. 4. jūnijā notiek Atvērtās Dienas Laukos. Dalību akcijā ir pieteikuši 230 lauku tūrisma uzņēmēji, bet no jūlija līdz septembrim viesus gaida Mājas kafejnīcas. Šogad Māju kafejnīcas pulcē rekordlielu apmeklētāju skaitu – kopumā tajās ir viesojušies ap 60 650 klientu. 31. jūlijā Lauku ceļotājs piedalās Maizes dienā un Sidra svētkos, kas notiek Āraišu dzirnavās. Par Latvijas ābolu “Sidra” ceļu izveidojam video. Video top arī par piecām “Zaļā sertifikāta” saimniecībām. Septembrī norisinās Eiropas kājāgājēju asociācijas (ERA) 53. ikgadējā konference, kur piedalāmies. ERA ir dibināta 1969. gadā un apvieno 33 Eiropas valstis. Arī abas mūsu gartakas – Jūrtaka un Mežtaka tagad iekļaujas garo Eiropas pārgājienu maršruta tīklā. Attīstām “Gājējiem draudzīgs” uzņēmumu zīmes ideju. Līdz gada beigām šo zīmi jau ir saņēmuši 253 uzņēmēji.

Beidzot varam turpināt reklamēt Āzijas tirgū GoRural produktus - šoreiz ne tikai Japānā, bet arī Singapūrā un Taizemē. Visiem patīk, tikai pārdot grūti, jo nav precīzi definējami. Bet tieši tapēc tik sirsnīgi un krāsaini tūrisma produkti tie ir.

2023. gads: Šī neparedzamā pasaule, kas mainās acu priekšā … Uzsākam Dabas tūrista ētikas kodeksa izstrādi

Esam atguvušies no kovida, bet Krievijas uzsāktais karš Ukrainā turpinās visu gadu! Vēl joprojām ir ārvalstu tūristi, kas baidās apmeklēt Baltijas valstis un jautā par drošību. Gada sākumā uzsākam darbu pie Latvijas Dabas tūrista ētikas kodeksa izstrādes, iesaistot piekrastes pašvaldības, tūrisma ekspertus un vides NVO. Šāda mēroga un apjoma dokuments Latvijā top pirmo reizi. Tā izstrādē izdodas iesaistīt visas piekrastes pašvaldības un vairāk kā 50 nozaru ekspertus. Paralēli tiek izstrādāti politikas priekšlikumi ilgtspējīgam tūrismam Latvijas piekrastē. Rezultāts ir publiski pieejams divās valodās. Sociālajos tīklos komunicējam par interesantām dabas norisēm, dzīvotnēm un sugām piekrastē. Daudzi ārvalstu tūristi mums jautā par Mežtaku un Jūrtaku – abu maršrutu popularitāte ir liela un šogad abus maršrutus slavenais tūrisma ceļvedis "Lonely planet" nosauc kā vienus no labākajiem pasaulē ilgtspējības kategorijā. Strādājam ar uzņēmējiem, kas piedāvā vai plāno piedāvāt savu dabas tūrisma produktu Apvienotās Karalistes tirgum. Šī projekta ietvaros jau esam paspējuši notestēt dažus dabas un aktīvā tūrisma produktus Igaunijā, piemēram, braucienu ar jūras kajakiem pa Ziemeļigaunijas salām. Ir atjaunināti “Zaļā sertifikāta” kritēriji un turpinās darbs ar “Zaļā sertifikāta” uzņēmumiem. Ir uzņemti saimnieku pieredzes un ekspertu padomu videosižeti un 31 uzņēmums iegūst "Zaļo sertifikātu". Veiksmīgi norit kārtējās Mājas kafejnīcu dienas. Noslēdzas MOST projekts ar partneriem no Uzbekistānas, Kazahstānas, Tadžikistānas, kurā Latvija un Grieķija nodot savu zaļās saimniekošanas pieredzi. Septembrī izstādes “Riga Food” ietvaros notiek starptautisks sidra konkurss “Nordic International Cider Awards”, kurā esam galvenie organizatori. Sidra konkurss uz Latviju atved 80 sidra gurū un pierāda izcilo Latvijas sidra dzēriena kvalitāti. Šogad svinam “Lauku ceļotāja” trīsdesmit gadu jubileju, atzīmējot to ar vikingu kuģa un velobraucienu. Novembra sākumā organizējam starptautisku darbsemināru ""Mežtakas" un "Jūrtakas" pieejamības uzlabošana un pārgājieni", kura ietvaros arī organizējam divus pārgājienus pa "Jūrtaku". Mūsu viens no tuvāko gadu mērķiem ir Jūrtakā un Mežtakā izveidot posmus un vietas, kas ir pielāgoti cilvēkiem ar funkcionāliem ierobežojumiem.

Text: Juris Smaļinskis