What makes Latvia a unique country to travel to?
Latvia is a stable democracy and has one of the fastest growing economies in the European Union. On January 1, 2014, Latvia is set to join the euro zone. , Most goods and services can be found in the capital of Latvia, Riga. However, in other areas outside of the capital, many western goods and services cannot be located.
Latvia is a relatively safe country, and crime is generally non-violent in nature; however, serious violent assaults and robberies have occurred. Harassment of foreigners, ethnic minorities, and homosexuals has also occurred in Latvia.
The Riga Tourist Police Unit has a 24/7 English-speaking operator at 371 6718 1818 and English-speaking officers who frequently patrol the Old City. The most common crimes encountered by foreign tourists are purse snatching, pick-pocketing, and mugging, especially during the summer tourism season. Tourists -- particularly those carrying backpacks -- are targeted by individuals or small groups of thieves working together. Riga’s Old Town (Vecriga), Central train station (Dzelzcela stacija), Central bus station (Autoosta) and Central market (Centraltirgus) are crowded public places that are targeted by thieves.
Please be aware that there are numerous scam artists targeting foreigners in the tourist pubs and restaurants. You should pay special attention to the drink prices at bars. There have been instances of travelers being charged exorbitant prices. Bills have been as high as several thousand dollars for drinks, and in some establishments the management may use force to secure payment.
If possible, you should avoid walking alone at night and avoid using ATMs after dark.
In addition, Internet crime is a growing concern in Latvia. Common fraudulent schemes involve both Internet auction sites and Internet job-search sites. In the first scam, criminals offer you valuable items for sale at low prices on Internet auctions and request that your payments are sent by wire transfer to a bank in Latvia or through a fraudulent escrow site that they have created themselves. In this scheme, your money passes through a bank in Latvia and is quickly withdrawn at an ATM or transferred to a bank in another country. It is very difficult in these cases to discover the identities of the account holders or recover the funds.
The second common scam involves identity theft through false job offers. In this scheme, a company claiming to be located in Latvia, but which has a non-existent address, offers you employment as a U.S.-based agent or freight forwarder. When you respond to the job offer, commonly posted on one of several popular Internet job sites, you are asked for a Social Security Number and other identifying information under the guise of conducting a background check.
Don’t buy counterfeit and pirated goods, even if they are widely available. Not only are the bootlegs illegal to bring back into the United States, but by buying them you may also be breaking local law. While you are traveling in another country, you are subject to its laws even if you are a U.S. citizen.
Foreign laws and legal systems can be vastly different than our own, and criminal penalties vary from country to country. There are also some things that might be legal in the country you visit, but still illegal in the United States. For example, you can be prosecuted under U.S. law if you buy pirated goods abroad. Engaging in sexual conduct with children or using or disseminating child pornography in a foreign country is a crime prosecutable in the United States.
If you do something illegal in Latvia, your U.S. passport won’t help you avoid arrest or prosecution. Persons violating Latvian laws, even unknowingly, may be expelled, arrested, or imprisoned. Penalties for possessing, using, or trafficking illegal drugs in Latvia are severe, and convicted offenders can expect long jail sentences and heavy fines.
Based on the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, bilateral agreements with certain countries, and customary international law, if you are arrested in Latvia, you have the option to request that the police, prison officials, or other authorities alert the U.S. Embassy of your arrest, and to have communications from you forwarded to the U.S. Embassy.
Russian is still used in commerce and daily life. English and German are also widely used. Latvian is related to the Lithuanian language. Latvian is based on the Latin alphabet, but contains many diacritical marks. It is now the official language.
Medical Facilities and Health Information
The quality of medical care in Latvia continues to improve, but still often falls short of Western standards. Latvia has many highly trained medical professionals, but hospitals and clinics still suffer from a lack of equipment and resources. The 2008-2009 economic crisis has resulted in further strains in health service budgets. Many doctors speak at least some English. There are few private clinics in major cities that offer services equal to Western European or U.S. standards. Elderly travelers and those with health problems may be at increased risk.
Western-quality dental care can be obtained in Riga. Doctors and hospitals often expect immediate cash payment for health services, particularly if immigration status in Latvia is unclear.
Ambulance service for emergencies is available by dialing 113; however, response time is poor in rural areas. Air ambulance service is available for medical evacuations; however, it is very expensive and advance payment or guarantee letter from an insurance company is required before a patient is transported.
Pharmaceuticals sold in Latvia are produced by companies certified in accordance with EU standards. Products of most major pharmaceutical manufacturers are sold in pharmacies in Latvia; however, they will not necessarily be labeled the same as in the United States and instructions are often not printed in English.
Tick-borne encephalitis and Lyme disease are widespread throughout the country. Those intending to visit parks or forested areas in Latvia are urged to speak with their health care practitioners. Tick-borne encephalitis vaccinations are given as a series of three doses, and are not available in the United States. There are no vaccines against Lyme disease. Hepatitis A is also a significant problem in Latvia.
Tuberculosis is an increasingly serious health concern in Latvia.
Safety and Security
Civil unrest is generally not a problem in Riga, and there have been no incidents of terrorism directed toward U.S. interests. Incidents of anti-Americanism are rare.
Nonetheless, in the past, Riga has experienced large, peaceful demonstrations related to internal political issues. While such events have generally been peaceful, we remind you that gatherings intended to be peaceful can become confrontational. Therefore, you should avoid the areas of demonstrations, if possible, and exercise caution if within the vicinity of any event.
Each winter, several people in Latvia sustain serious injuries from falling icicles. Pay careful attention to sidewalks that are blocked by rope or tape and be cautious of work crews clearing ice and snow from building rooftops. Sidewalks and roads can also be extremely slippery in the winter months; exercise caution while crossing streets, even if you have the right of way.
Traffic Safety and Road Conditions
While in Latvia, U.S. citizens may encounter road conditions that differ significantly from those in the United States.
Foreign visitors to Latvia planning to operate a motor vehicle are required to obtain an International Driving Permit. You may get these through the American Automobile Association (AAA) or the American Automobile Touring Alliance for a small fee. Your U.S. state driver’s license is not sufficient for driving in Latvia. These requirements apply if you are using rental cars as well, whether or not the rental company chooses to enforce the requirement as a condition of rental. If you drive without an International Driving Permit, you may have your vehicle confiscated by the police. U.S. citizens resident in Latvia for more than six months are required to apply for a Latvian driver’s license. Upon receipt of a Latvian driver’s license, U.S. citizens are required to surrender their U.S. driver’s license to the Latvian authorities. The licenses are then returned to their respective states of issuance.
Latvia’s rate of automobile accidents and fatalities is one of the highest in Europe. You should be alert for pedestrians and slow-moving vehicles in traffic. Additionally, violation of traffic rules is common, and it is not unusual to be passed by other automobiles traveling at high speeds, even in crowded urban areas. In Latvia, it is required by law to yield to pedestrians at marked intersections. However, many drivers fail to do so. Be alert to approaching vehicles when crossing the street. During winter, most major roads are cleared of snow; however, you should be alert for fog, snow, and ice while driving. Driving while intoxicated is a very serious offense and carries heavy penalties. Local authorities use roadblocks and breathalyzer tests as enforcement tools. Be alert to the possibility of drunk drivers and drunken pedestrians wandering on the road. You must use headlights at all times, and note that there can be as little as six hours of daylight during the winter months. Speed limits are usually 50 km/hr in the city and 90 km/hr on the highways. As of late 2011, Latvia began using an extensive photo speed enforcement program with cameras deployed throughout the country. Public transportation is generally considered safe, but travelers are encouraged to select well-marked taxis. Emergency services are fair but improving (See section on Medical Facilities above); response time may be especially slow in traffic or in rural settings. Dial 112 for police assistance, or 113 for ambulance service.