The so-called Baltic travel bubble, which since the middle of May has allowed free travel in the region by residents of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, partly collapsed September 11 when Latvian authorities put Estonia on a list of places from which travelers must self-isolate for 14 days after entering Latvia.
The Latvian Center for Disease Prevention and Control published its weekly list of infection rates in Europe and some other countries, listing Estonia’s Covid -19 infection rate at 20.8 per 100 000 population, well over the Latvian limit of 16 per 100 000
The new restrictions, which had been expected, essentially end all tourism and personal visits between both countries and apply. as well, to all citizens and residents of Latvia returning from Estonia.
Meanwhile, Lithuania lifted its threshold for requiring self-isolation by travelers to 25 cases of covid-19 per 100 000 inhabitants, meaning that Estonians are free to visit, but could not travel by land through Latvia.
The partial collapse of the bubble is seen as a very hard blow to the tourism and hospitality industry in all three countries, with high-spending tourists from Scandinavia and Germany cut off for several weeks and travelers between the Baltic countries practically the only source of income for hotels, restaurants and tour operators.
Sanita Graikste, a spokesperson for the Latvian Hotel and Restaurant Association, told EFE that “this year, both neighboring countries, Lithuania and Estonia, had a critical role in the survival of the tourism, hospitality and international travel sectors.” She said tourist and business travel visits and nights spend at hotels from Estonia and Lithuania were roughly at 60 percent of year earlier levels in the first half of the year compared to 2019.
Liina Maria Lepik, head of the Estonia Tourist Board informed EFE that tourists from the other two Baltic countries made up a very small share (less that 5 percent) of arrivals and overnight stays in Estonia in 2019 even before the pandemic, and this share remained little changed despite a sharp drop in absolute numbers during May and June compared to the year earlier months. To the extent there was any business for hotels, restaurants and tour operators, it was mainly domestic travel by Estonians, Lepik said.
In Latvia, despite the new restrictions on travel to and from Estonia, the government has made exceptions for the border-straddling towns of Valka (Latvia) and Valga (Estonia) where residents may move freely in what has organically been a single town as long as they don’t later leave the territory of the twin municipality.
Valka mayor Vents Krauklis has said that his town and Valga were a single economic organism with retailers on the Latvian side getting more than 40 percent of their revenue from shoppers from the Estonian side.
In case infection figures worsen in Lithuania, the Latvian government has allowed border-crossing arrangements for residents of some towns and villages along the Latvian-Lithuanian border. There are some places where schoolchildren go to sports activities just across the border in Lithuania and Lithuanian residents work in Latvia, sometimes at walking distance from their homes.
Lithuania missed getting on the restricted list with an infection rate of 15.6 per 100 000. Travelers from Finland, with a rate of 8.2 , are still welcome in Latvia with no required self-isolation, but they may not travel by land through Estonia.
Meanwhile Estonia’s Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu announced September 10 that the threshold for making incoming travelers self-isolated had been raised to 25 cases per 100 000, according to local media.
Latvia's Minister of Health Ilze Viņķele told Latvian Television shortly after the new restrictions came into force that both neighbors had asked that Latvia also raise its Covid-19 infection threshold. She said that Latvia, with its infection rate of 4.3 per 100 000 allowed the country to open schools for in-classroom teaching. She said this had a greater positive and long-term effect on the economy than the relative small flow of Estonian tourists that will be lost.
The Baltic countries were one of the first areas in the European Union (EU) to restore free movement after stringent travel restrictions and lockdowns were Imposed across the 28-nation union, shattering the free borderless travel that had existed under the Schengen Agreement in most of the EU.
The “travel bubble” opened in the middle of May as all three countries reported declining infection rates and gave a boost to the tourist, hospitality and restaurant industries which had almost completely shut down at the height of the pandemic lockdown that started in March.