28 March, 2008

Latvia Tourism

Tourism in Latvia is a disgrace. Tourism is one of the easiest ways for a country to attain inflows of foreign currency but Latvia does not do enough to represent itself and attract international guests.
Many people from other countries are intercepting people searching online for tourist options in Latvia because Latvians have little interest to communicate in English.
Do a search online for Rural Tourism Latvia and you get websites from Armenia and Belarus intercepting the tourists from Latvia with their websites. Most of the other search results are irrelevant and you have to know Celotajs is the Latvian word for 'Rural tourism' !
Once you are at the Celotajs website you are not able to book online. I asked this office why they did not have online booking and was told that they 'voted against it in case someone with the same name arrived at the accommodation claiming to have made the booking.' Absolute insanity! I offered to provide the office an online reservation system free of charge but they declined.
Try booking a ticket online to catch a ferry. You cant even find a website that represents ferries at the port unless you know that the Riga Port is called Riga Free Port or that the ferry company is Tallink. But even once you can find the Tallink webpage it is impossible to book online instantly!
Ok so let's try an easier search -'Latvia' and the http://www.latviatourism.lv/ website respectably comes up in second place on the first page. Proceed to booking using the English language and you have to navigate using the Latvian language. Then when you get your results in Latvian listing accommodation all over Latvia!
Latvia should be a Mecca destination for people from all over the world wanting to do countryside walks or ski trips lasting a few days. But Latvia does not have any chalets or long distance walking tracks. Latvians will tell you that Downhill skiing is better but we do not have mountains so best you go to Austria.
Lithuania has over 200km of cycle tracks leading up to the Latvian border and Latvia has a few interspersed listed tracks. Hellooooo! Anyone home in Latvia care enough about Latvia to do their job?
I did work with the Aluksne Town Council to improve rural tourism. I had honours students from Australia stay in Aluksne for 1 month doing research and writing a plan. I paid for most of it from my own pocket. We had transmitter technology installed that communicated about tourist sites 24 hours a day in 5 languages. Then one Latvia authority made yet another demand of 1000 lvl more to provide certification so the Council could include the transmitters on tourist information material. This in effect killed a non-profit project that could have had large benefits for all of Latvia and tourism businesses in all remote areas of Latvia. Imagine the rural employment improvement opportunity that Latvia has missed and the export of this technology to other EU countries that Latvia could have represented.

27 March, 2008

Baltic States or Countries

Latvians too often are their own enemy because there are so many basic things that ought to be done to improve the prosperity of Latvia that have little to no cost to do them. One overt example is that Latvians refer to their country as a State and the region as the Baltic States. This is a problem because most English speaking people have an experience with States being a subsidiary of a country. Australia and the USA are examples of countries made up of States. So what country is the Latvia State a subsidiary of - Russia?
Considering that most English speaking people are not too familiar with Latvia they tend to think that Latvia is a breakaway state of the Soviet Union. They are not so aware that Latvia regained independence. Instead of attempting to educate the world it would be a much easier to remove disinformation and refer to ourselves in Latvia as a country.
An image of a country is a valuable asset for the people of that country. Many companies work at avoiding associations that damage their image. But Latvia is active in undermining its own image.

The Municipality Asset in Latvia

I read in the Opinion section of the Baltic Times last week the article titled 'Municipal Madness' where is was suggested that decreasing the amount municipalities in Latvia would somehow bring a mentality of efficiency to the leaders in Latvia. (432 rural municipalities in Latvia and there are calls to merge some to leave only about 100.)
This seems a bit like Latvia wishing to be a larger country if it could be. The old argument about economies of scale puts forward the message that large enables reduction in the cost of production causing less cost. But I would like to suggest that the time for big is coming to an end. Latvia is a small country and this is its advantage. Smaller is faster and more competitive. Would small areas of Latvia be better represented if they became homogenised in to a larger command?
The answer in this day and age is NO.
Controlling small diverse municipalities has never before been easier than it is now in this information age. Each small municipality represents a competitive sector of Latvia striving to attract resources through promoting its advantages. Having no people in an area is an advantage as is having lots of people - it just requires application to the correct industry segments for each area.
Sweden has 290 municipalities, Finland has 416 and Norway has 430. These countries are considered economically successful so having many municipalities does not exclude economic advancement. If the argument is that some of the municipalities are somehow rotten in need of assistance then dragging them together to create a larger administration could drown out the whole municipality with predominantly bad news and poor resources thus hampering startup businesses. Slower responsiveness from a larger municipality with more staffers to deal with that hide behind each other will certainly handicap start up businesses. Whereas businesses can perform across municipal borders once established.

I approached my own remote municipality of Valle and made requests to rezone my land. I received a positive and fast response and even delt directly with the Mayor. I concurrently deal with larger councils in two other areas of Latvia and they are more obstructive than helpful. What makes success is not driving costs down but focusing on generating income. Basically adopting an abundance way of thinking about Latvia than a pessimistic view.

One of the big causes of the problem for municipalities is a mentality in Latvia that 'Everyone Knows How to Find Us' and as a result there is not enough effort placed on attracting resources like customers. Regaining independence is not complete when every business and municipality behaves like it is hiding behind an Iron Curtain. 99% of all revenue generating units in Latvia can not be found by people that speak the major international Language - English. As a result there is a lot of cash in Europe that is not finding its way to Latvia.

When people can gain income through corruption, EU funds or by evading taxes there is not as high an incentive to be professional about what you represent. In the mean-time whilst Latvia sleeps many people outside of Latvia are winning the business and even taking key domain names to point people from Latvia to their own country.

Diverse and many Municipalities represent a bigger business opportunity for Latvia than if they were consolidated. They just need to be lead better so they know what and how to promote.

26 March, 2008

No Responsibility in Latvia

1. ) The Committee in Latvia is the governments answer for avoiding responsibility. It enables a collective style in decision making where there is not one individual standing up as a leader. The Committee is corruptable because individuals can be influenced by money to sway the vote of the Committee. When decisions made by the Committee are seen as damaging to society the Committee is blamed and all individuals that make up the Committee are not named and shamed. Such famed Committee decisions have included .....
However, with a bit of effort from the people of Latvia the Committee can be guided in the right direction. Maybe every Committee in Latvia needs an Interest Group drawn from the public that watches the agenda for every decision being put forward.
In 2003 I with two of my students from the Stockholm School of Economics in Riga met with the Riga City Council Committee to prevent a Bowling alley being set up in a government building. We put forward an argument supporting Ieva Kalnina to establish a Contemporary Art Exhibition Centre. I am very happy to say that in 2008 this exhibition centre opened.

2.) At the start of 2008 I updated one of my company's documents to reinstate myself as Director of that company. This resulted in the discovery at the company registry that they had lost documentation I submitted 2 years previous. The Company Registry did not take responsibility to work with me to correct their error. Instead I had to demand to be able to speak to someone to identify what went wrong. There was active refusal to meet and talk and I had to pay extra money to speed up the process. But meanwhile the Company Registry informed VID that all the documentation was not in place and my bank accounts for this company have been closed for over 6 weeks. A total uninterest from the department responsible for their mistake. They did not behave responsibly or professionally and caused a lot of extra cost to myself.

3.) With government departments setting the standard I got the same amature irresponsible behaviour from Baltic Motors when I needed my Land Rover serviced. Baltic Motors are so bad that I now take my car to Sweden to get it serviced. Baltic Motors purchase the wrong parts then charge me for their mistake, they say they have done work that they charge for that has not been done, I pay for parts to be ordered that never arrive. The classic was changing lots of parts to get my cruise control working again but they failed. I got fed up with their incompetence so I purchased the correct part elsewhere and fixed it myself.

23 March, 2008

Squandering the Resposibility of Leaders

When Directing the Business Development Lab at the Stockholm School of Economics in Riga it became apparent that business growth in Latvia suffers from Professor-itis. Professoritis is the tendency for a lot of thinking and not much doing. Have a good humoured look at the web page of The Latvian Presidents Commission for Strategic Analysis - great photo with a list of professors below it http://www.president.lv/pk/content/?cat_id=1147 and check out the Latvian National Development Plan for 2007 to 2013 http://www.nap.lv/eng/ .
In these websites you will see documented proof from the highest Latvian offices that there has been a lot of thinking referring to business objectives that should already be well down the track. But these objectives will never occur timely enough to be of much value for the people of Latvia. This is mostly because of what you see on TV - Latvian leaders wasting time shaking the hands of foreign diplomats instead of progressing specifics on how steps will be achieved.
Over the last 17 years the Latvian Investment Development Agency has been struggling to educate Latvians on business development. As far as I am aware The Latvian government knocked back all applications from LIDA for entrepreneurial funding regardless of the fact that it is well known that 1 euro invested by a government to increase entrepreneurship returns at least 11 taxable euros to an economy within 5 years. Only in the last 2 years EU funds for entrepreneurial development are getting through thanks to EU leadership.
The Foreign Investors Council in Latvia that represents the largest private businesses in Latvia have failed to attract one substantial manufacturer to set up exports from Latvia.
All just another example of Latvia placing more value on Hierarchy than the ability to get things done and no vision for the future of Latvia that the people in Latvia believe in.
Contrast this with what is happening April in Australia - the Prime Minister of Oz has gathered top business leaders together to formulate specific objectives to enable Australia to maintain its competitiveness http://www.australia2020.gov.au/ .
In this summit real-time information (Not Data) will be collected from the people that have specific experience and knowledge on what exactly needs to be done by particular departments and particular people.
However, in Latvia there is one Minister that has the ability to get things done and he holds the respected Hierarchy. Ainars Slesers can be directly credited with making Latvia the largest recipient of Norwegian foreign investment and pushing Latvia to become an aviation hub. But he is not held up as a shining example for others to emulate because he concurrently has let his entrepreneurial zeal get away from him and undermine the responsibility entrusted to him. Maybe an improved legal system in Latvia would discourage runaway cronies.

19 March, 2008

Latvian Culture

In the past 5 years I have seen Latvia's image hijacked by Strip Clubs and similar humorous businesses. I have written at least 20 letters to the Riga City mayor, the President, and Ministry's arguing that renting out government buildings and providing permits for such businesses in a UNESCO listed area is not in the interests of Latvia. Some small mercy's have been achieved. But on this journey I had seen foreigners blamed for the perversion when I am not aware of one strip club being owned by a foreigner. Posters pointing fingers calling tourists terrorists is another example of blaming others and doing nothing constructive. But after 17 years of freedom Latvia has finally established one web page in English promoting something good about Latvia that is readable, interesting, and full of up to date content. You have to see www.culture.lv . This Culture website lists events for Music, Art, Dance, Theatre, Cinema, Literature, and Museums. This website proves that it is possible for Latvia to be professionally proactive targeting English speaking people, so there should not be excuses for other departments to squander their responsibility.

12 March, 2008

Australian economy Booming

The Australian Economy is booming. The Australian dollar has appreciate 30% in value over the last 12 months. There are billions of dollars of account surpluses for Australian State Governements - Especially for Western Australia. There are recruitment drives in the UK urging some of the 100,000 Australians living in the UK to return to Australia. The shortage of workers in Australia is causing so many problems that many people with skills can more easily than usual obtain a work visa to Australia.
The Australian Chamber of Commerce in Riga as of March 2008 is trying to source around 45 million dollars worth of products from Europe for the Australian market. If there is success then this will grow to around 500 million dollars in 2009.
European and US economies are on a downturn so markets and income are being lost by many firms. Just maybe it is time for many European Latvian businesses to think about Australia as a business partnership opportunity.

10 March, 2008

Australia versus Latvia

You hear it all the time -
1. I would love to live in Australia,
2. Why do you choose to live in Latvia when Australia is so nice?
3. How can I get a job to stay in Latvia longer than my visa will allow,
4. There are too many Latvians and other Eastern Europeans in London.
5. It's too cold in Latvia!
These are examples of such cliche comments from minds full of assumptions. All the sensible people know that just about anyone can live and work in Australia if you have a skill that Australia requires.
1. What a wonderful opportunity for non Australians to graduate and also be allowed to live in Australia. You choose what you study and if you want to live in Australia just study the right thing.
2. Latvia is a wonderful place to live with its four seasons. beautiful sights, natural forests, and great location within Europe.
3. Good jobs in Latvia can be hard to find especially if you do not speak Latvian but why not open a business of your own in Latvia. In Australia it will take around 6 to 10 years of study to be able to open a Real Estate company but in Latvia you can have one operating within 2 weeks! Latvia needs businesses and if you open one you can stay as long as you want.
4. As I recall the big scare for New Europeans prior to joining the EU was being taken over by rich experienced Old Europeans. The reality is that Old Europe is not very forward thinking and they have not taken advantage of the opportunities presented in New European countries like Latvia. It's not all about life as an employee. Where are all the entrepreneurial employers of the world?
5. Australia is more cold than Latvia. Believe it or not but when you return home to a cold non centrally heated home it takes a long time to get warm, When the wind blows a gail and the rain falls it is much colder than snow with no wind. Cross country skiing in Latvia gives a purpose to the cold and it is very beautiful.

08 March, 2008

The vision for Latvia

What is the vision for the future of Latvia that the people of Latvia believe in?
Why are the people of Latvia so mean to each other?
Why is there is more focus on hierarchy than professionalism in Latvia.
Sure a book on culture can explain a lot of it but are Latvians really wanting a society with no vision for the future?
Why did the previous Latvian President of 8 years not unite the people of Latvia with a vision for the future?
Why don't the majority of people in Latvia that have succeeded in business and are financially secure contribute back to Latvian society?
What happened to the burning desire that should have existed to make up for 50 lost years.
We see on occasion an indication of what the people of Latvia want when they protest. But this is classic Nei Drikst (Cant do it) and not positive leadership.
Keeping the enthusiasm for life in my son against all the nei driksters in Latvia is a challenge. Latvia and the people of Latvia have more opportunity than their equivalent person in Australia. But who tells the people of Latvia positive messages and encourages them to be happy and positive about the future?
I just had the Commissioner of the Western Australian Police in Riga. I sent an invitation to the Latvian Police and KNAB to meet with him to establish contact for the benefit of Latvia. But I got no response and I guess it is because these organisations don't have an understanding of the relevance of such a contact. With no vision and no goal, then no one knows where they are going and what is the best choice for society.
Certainly I don't see a flood of people with Latvian heritage coming to Latvia. Why should they when there is no direction or purpose for their energy and resources. Latvia should be a haven for retired Scandinavians with skills, time and money to contribute to the Latvian vision for the future. I lived in China for 3 years and witnessed how the Chinese attract any resource that will help them get ahead economically. I'm not even sure Latvia has a goal to be an economic leader in some way. I have heard the odd minister state that they are following some EU document. Latvia has more opportunity than China to provide a high standard of living for all people living in Latvia. Where are all the manufacturers that should have established themselves in Latvia? What leader has ever attracted a substantial manufacturer to set up in Latvia. Why don't the Presidents of Latvia focus more on attracting business to Latvia. This is what leaders of other small countries do successfully.

Anyone got any answers or able to correct me (in writing) if I am wrong?


Dean Strautins
DirectorAustralian Chamber of Commerce in Latvia
Suite 11, Krisjana Barona iela 25
Riga, Latvia, LV-1011
+371 26394789
Fax +371 7278809