Diplomatic Pouch / September 10, 2010
By Larry Luxner
Long before he became Latvia’s top diplomat in Washington, Andrejs Pildegovics earned extra money for college by guiding Chinese-speaking visitors around his picturesque little Baltic country. No wonder the ambassador has a special place in his heart for tour guides — a fact he happily shared at a recent reception for the Guild of Professional Tour Guides of Washington, D.C.
The Sept. 1 event, held at the historic Latvian Embassy fronting Massachusetts Avenue, attracted about 40 or so tour guides who plan to visit both Latvia and Estonia early next year. Their Baltic adventure coincides with the 14th World Federation of Tourist Guide Associations (WFTGA) convention set for Jan. 31-Feb. 4, 2011, in the Estonian capital of Tallinn.
“We are very honored to host you in this building, which we took over five years ago and which reflects the cultural heritage of Latvia,” said Pildegovics, who was introduced by veteran local tour guide Maricar Donato. “For 50 years, due to Soviet occupation, we weren’t even mentioned on world maps as a separate country. It was hard to explain to people that the Baltics were not the Balkans, and that Latvia was not really part of the USSR. But things have changed in these past 20 years.”
The event was organized by the Guild of Professional Tour Guides of Washington, D.C., which is hoping to host the 15th WFTGA convention in 2013.
Guild President James Heegeman said his organization has about 360 members.
“We started out in 1985 with a dozen or so members. Some of us are part-time guides, retired schoolteachers or former military, and we’re now celebrating our 25th anniversary,” said Heegeman, an ex-army officer and volunteer tour guide at the National Building Museum. “The guild has decided to make a bid to host the 2013 convention in Washington. We feel that after 25 years, it’s our time.”
The guild will formally make its presentation during the Tallinn gathering; previous WFTGA conventions have taken place in Bali, Cairo, Melbourne, Hong Kong, Montreal, Singapore and Tel Aviv, among other host cities. Heegeman told Pouch that if Washington does win the right to host the 15th WFTGA convention, it’ll take place Feb. 11-15, 2013, though the venue hasn’t yet been determined.
“The Latvian guides are eager to welcome us,” he said, explaining that his group will spend spend three days in Latvia following the Tallinn meeting, then enjoy a closing ceremony at Riga’s Lido Restaurant.
The guild is planning a similar wine-and-cheese reception Sept. 28 at the Estonian Embassy, located just two blocks south of the Latvian mission along Massachusetts Avenue. Asked by one Washington-area tour guide what Latvian winters are like, Ambassador Pildegovics said “we’re located on the 57th parallel north, meaning we’re further north than Toronto. So it’s always a white Christmas in Latvia.”
The group’s upcoming visit to Latvia and Estonia comes as the two Baltic states — along with Lithuania to the south — recover from the devastating 2008 financial crisis that caused European investment to dwindle and unemployment to soar throughout the region.
Latvia, with a population of 2.3 million, has seen its GDP shrink by 26 percent since the crisis began, though by mid-2010 the economy had begun to stabilize.
“When I came to Washington three years ago, I was asked what my mission was. I said to help my country become rich and famous,” Pildegovics told the tour guides, noting that national elections are less than a month away. “We’ve been deeply affected by the economic slowdown, so the question is how much these factors will influence the elections. But there is broad consensus that unlike some other countries in the region, the majority of our people support NATO and EU membership.”
Pildegovics said he considers tourism paramount to the economic future of Latvia. Riga, in fact, has become a must-see on the European travel circuit. Six years ago, Riga’s international airport received only 500,000 passengers annually; last year, four million passengers flew into or out of that airport.
He told the tour guides: “I’m also very happy that big American cruise-ship lines have started visiting Baltic ports. The potential is certainly there.”
For more information on the guild, visit www.washingtondctourguides.com.