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Planting the seeds of Latvian growth

Building relations from nothing into something is a challenge but if you are the first ambassador from an unknown country, then that challenge can be even greater.

Latvia Ambassador Peteris Vaivars is taking the challenge in full stride even if he resides and works out of Tokyo.

He explained to The Korea Herald that relations between Latvia and Japan were virtually non-existent when he headed the mission in Tokyo until recently.

Now he is taking his mission on the road to South Korea and is planting the seeds that he hopes will sprout into a strong and fruitful relationship.

The first seed he is planting is in the tourism sector.

“If you attract tourists then business will follow,” he said with optimism.

While in Seoul he met with the Korean Association of Travel Agents to look for ways on how both parties can attract tourists from Korea.

“We have nice food, nice climate, it’s very green, eco-friendly, a clean environment, so it’s very important for us to attract Korean tourists to come and see,” Vaivars said. 
Latvia Ambassador Peteris Vaivars (Yoav Cerralbo/The Korea Herald)
Latvia Ambassador Peteris Vaivars (Yoav Cerralbo/The Korea Herald)

Riga, the capital, is a city dating back 800 years and is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

For travelers, the great thing about Latvia is that it is compact.

In terms of tourist destinations, Latvia provides a plethora of choices but is best known for massive medieval buildings, astonishing churches, magnificent museums, and is blessed with rich scenic beauty, nature parks and sandy beaches.

Unlike its other tourist counterparts, Latvia is one of the few places in the world that remains relatively untouched by man and still retains its original flavor gifted by nature.

Even with all its charms, the toughest challenge for Vaivars is spreading the word about a country that is not on the minds of would-be travelers.

KATA explained that there are many countries looking to work with them to promote tourism options.

“KATA’s position was for us to convince them,” he said. “That Latvia is not the only country interested in promoting tourism with them (KATA).”

That is why later on this year the ambassador will organize seminars and familiarization tours for journalists and tour operators.

One strong advantage Latvia has is that it is one of the closest European Union countries to Korea with connections made in Helsinki with Finnair who flies direct from Incheon.

Furthermore no visas are needed for Koreans looking to travel to this old country.

“First and most important, to develop business contacts you need to build people-to-people contacts and that is done through cultural exchanges and tourism.

“When people start to travel, they meet and build upon friendships and that could lead to business. We experienced that in Japan,” he noted.

Trade between Korea and Latvia is small. Last year, bilateral trade reached $94 million within the first 11 months of the year.

Their largest export to Korea is in the timber industry, and with implementation of a free trade agreement on the horizon between Korea and the European Union, the ambassador believes business can only get better.

“With this FTA coming into force soon, we are planning to focus our efforts on really showing Latvia,” Vaivars said.

Their most important product exported to Korean shores is high-tech timber used to isolate oil tankers made by Hyundai Heavy Industries.

“Almost 60 percent of our territory is forests,” he said. “We are one of the big producers of timber which is also used in furniture so this is what we are trying to sell.”

Furniture is also another industry the ambassador is hoping will get picked up here, and with it Latvian home decorative products that are sold throughout the world, not only through IKEA, but other stores.

“Also, our cosmetic products, they are eco-friendly and very successful in neighboring markets here,” he said.

Promoting the Latvian pharmaceutical industry in Korea is also a strong option Vaivars noted because “our products are very competitive, especially natural food additives made from wild berries and different herbs. They are eco-friendly, clean, with no chemicals added.”

As for investments, Latvia has implemented many reforms in the business sphere, ranking 27th worldwide on the ease of doing business there, according to the World Bank Doing Business 2010 report.

Vaivars is also looking to promote Latvia’s movie-making industry in Korea which is well-equipped with state-of-the-art technology and a strong know-how of working with international film crews.

As for the Latvian Foreign Ministry opening a mission in Seoul, Vaivars sadly stated that it is not in the cards yet but rumor has it that Seoul is thinking about opening a mission in one of the three Baltic states.

“We hope Riga’s geographic location, in the center of the Baltic states, will attract Korea to build one in Riga,” he said.

By Yoav Cerralbo (yoav@heraldcorp.com)
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