Latvia Travel Information

Photo After a brief period of independence between the two World Wars, Latvia was annexed by the USSR in 1940. It reestablished its independence in 1991 following the breakup of the Soviet Union. Although the last Russian troops left in 1994, the status of the Russian minority (some 30% of the population) remains of concern to Moscow. Latvia continues to revamp its economy for eventual integration into various Western European political and economic institutions.

GEOGRAPHY

Between 55.40 and 58.05 latitude and 20.58 and 28.14 longitude, Latvia lies on the eastern shores of the Baltic Sea on the level northwestern part of the rising East European platform. About 98% of the country lies under 200m elevation (640 ft.). The damp climate resembles New England's. With the exception of the coastal plains, the Ice Age divided Latvia into three main regions: the morainic Western and Eastern uplands and the Middle lowlands. Latvia holds over 12,000 rivers, only 17 of which are longer than 60 miles, and over 3,000 small lakes, most of which are eutrophic. Woodland, more than half of which is pine, covers 41% of the country. Other than peat, dolomite, and limestone, natural resources are scarce. Latvia holds 531km (329 mi.) of sandy coastline, and the ports of Liepaja and Ventspils provide important warm-water harbors for the Baltic littoral, although the Bay of Riga itself is rather polluted.

PEOPLE

Latvians occasionally refer to themselves by the ancient name of "Latviji," which may have originated from a "Latve" river that presumably flowed through what is now eastern Latvia. A small Finno-Ugric tribe known as the Livs settled among the Latvians and modulated the name to "Latvis," meaning "forest-clearers," which is how medieval German settlers also referred to these peoples. The German colonizers changed this name to "Lette" and called their initially small colony "Livland." The Latin form, "Livonia," gradually referred to the whole of modern-day Latvia as well as southern Estonia, which had fallen under German dominion. Latvians and Lithuanians are the only directly surviving members of the Baltic peoples and languages of the Indo-European family.

HISTORY

Since 9,000 BC ancient peoples of unknown origin had inhabited Latvia, but by 3,000 BC the ancestors of the Finns had settled the region. A millennium later, pre-Baltic tribes had arrived and within time evolved into the Baltic Couranian, Latgallian, Selonian, and Semigallian groups. These tribes eventually formed local governments independently from the Finno-Ugric Livian tribe until the thirteenth century, when they were conquered by the Germans, who renamed the territory Livonia.

Latvia claimed de facto independence on August 21, 1991 in the aftermath of the failed Soviet coup attempt. International recognition, including the U.S.S.R., followed. The U.S., which had never recognized Latvia's forcible annexation by the U.S.S.R., resumed full diplomatic relations with Latvia on September 2.

ECONOMY

For centuries under Hanseatic and German influence and then during its inter-war independence, Latvia used its geographic location as an important East-West commercial and trading center.

Industry served local markets, while timber, paper and agricultural products supplied Latvia's main exports. Conversely, the years of Russian and Soviet occupation tended to integrate Latvia's economy to serve those empires' large internal industrial needs. Comprising 40.1% of the populace, non-ethnic Latvians control almost 80% of the economy.

U.S.-LATVIAN RELATIONS

The United States established diplomatic relations with Latvia on July 28, 1922. The U.S. Legation in Riga officially was established November 13, 1922, and served as the headquarters for U.S. representation in the Baltics during the interwar era. The Soviet invasion forced the closure of the legation on September 5, 1940, but Latvian representation in the United States has continued uninterrupted for more than 70 years. The United States never recognized the forcible incorporation of Latvia into the U.S.S.R. and views the present Government of Latvia as a legal continuation of the interwar republic. Latvia has enjoyed most-favored-nation (MFN) treatment with the U.S. since December 1991.

Important: Travel to Latvia may require a travel visa. Whether a visa is required for travel depends on citizenship and purpose of journey. Please be sure to review Travisa's Latvia visa instructions for details. Visa instructions for other countries are available on our do I need a visa page.

Country Statistics

Full country name: Republic of Latvia
Capital city: Riga
Area: 64,589 sq km
Population: 2,191,580
Ethnic groups: Latvian 59.3%, Russian 27.8%, Belarusian 3.6%, Ukrainian 2.5%, Polish 2.4%, Lithuanian 1.3%, other 3.1%
Languages: Latvian
Religions: Lutheran 19.6%, Orthodox 15.3%, other Christian 1%, other 0.4%, unspecified 63.7%
Government: parliamentary democracy
Chief of State: President Andris BERZINS
Head of Government: Prime Minister Valdis DOMBROVSKIS
GDP: 34.89 billion
GDP per captia: 16,800
Annual growth rate: 5.5%
Inflation: 4.4%
Agriculture: grain, rapeseed, potatoes, vegetables
Major industries: processed foods, processed wood products, textiles, processed metals, pharmaceuticals, railroad cars, synthetic fibers, electronics
Natural resources: peat, limestone, dolomite, amber, hydropower, timber, arable land
Location: Eastern Europe, bordering the Baltic Sea, between Estonia and Lithuania
Trade Partners - exports: Russia 15.7%, Lithuania 14.9%, Estonia 11.2%, Germany 6.9%, Sweden 5.2%, Poland 4.9%
Trade Partners - imports: Lithuania 16.6%, Germany 11%, Russia 7.7%, Poland 7.2%, Estonia 6.8%, Italy 4.2%, Finland 4.1%