Here he sat on the six-hour bus from Tallinn, Estonia, to Riga, Latvia, a 34-year-old Swede with limited legroom and Baltic summer humidity hanging all around him. Yet Hans Bjorkman grinned like a child awaiting a great gift.
"My guests will travel on this bus," he said.
Bjorkman is an aspiring Riga hostel host, and one foot soldier in a corps of irregular hoteliers now on the march through the post-Soviet Baltics. Their ambition is to undercut or outclass the 600-room, $100-a-night behemoths that Moscow-based Intourist officials have sprinkled throughout the former Soviet Union.
The weapons of these new entrepreneurs are Western thinking and a willingness to improvise. Their foes are residual bureaucracy and a hesitant traveling public. Their backgrounds range from Swedish banking to professional basketball.
And with the Baltic hotel industry still in its infancy and rooms so rare, our satisfaction as travelers may depend upon them.
First, the case of Hans Bjorkman. In 1980, he quit his job handling foreign accounts for a Stockholm bank and took a camp counselor job in Potosi, Mo. In succeeding years, he wandered through 38 American states, biked from Stockholm to Gibraltar and investigated the Baltics as they struggled for independence. Eventually, he and his partners decided to open a hostel in Riga.
"I wanted to do something completely different," Bjorkman said as the bus rumbled southward. "I was here in Latvia before, and I knew all the problems with hotels being expensive and low in quality. And I had these connections in Latvia."
Beginning in September, 1991--the month after Latvian independence was declared--he and his partners started negotiating with a music school in suburban Riga: They would pay rent and renovate rooms, and the school dormitories would become the 300-bed Riga Hostel (Emil Darzin Musikas Skola, Kalnciema 10-12; phone 011-7-0132-611-950). The hostel, open to all ages, would charge $9 a bed (bathroom down the hall), close for the school year on Aug. 25, and reopen in July, 1993. The talks advanced, broke down, advanced again. To cut down the renovation expenses, Bjorkman cut discount deals for bed linens and went on a Swedish radio show to make a public appeal for toilets.
Through these months, the biggest tourist hotel in town, the Intourist-built Latvija, continued to charge Westerners $100 a night and more for double rooms, treating guests with resolute indifference.
As we rolled south one afternoon in late June, Bjorkman still had no guarantee that the dormitory renovations were done, just two days before his targeted opening night, and no government permits. But he had faith.
"My lawyer says we don't need anything," he said. "Of course, we could run into problems. But you can always run into problems."
Upscale and downscale, Russian, Swedish, German and Latvian-American, Bjorkman's counterparts span the Baltics. Those noted below are only a sampling.
Downtown Riga's Hotel de Rome, with polished fixtures and blond-wood banisters, beckons Westerners who don't mind spending $200 nightly in a city where some people don't earn $200 in a year of full-time work. The hotel's German operators, hip to local history, have adopted Riga's civic mascot, the golden rooster, as the hotel logo, and named their upstairs restaurant for Otto Schwarz, proprietor of the corner cafe on the hotel site 50 years ago, when Latvia last was independent. Business is good.
Just a block down the street, Swedish entrepreneurs have somehow persuaded the Hotel Riga--like the Latvija a pre-independence enterprise--to lease or sell its third floor. Then the Swedes ripped out everything, rebuilt 56 rooms from scratch and opened for business in fall of last year as Eurolink, an independent hotel. Imagine a Motel 6 sub-leasing to the Four Seasons.
On the first, second and fourth floors of the Hotel Riga, visitors encounter typical Soviet holdover lodgings: shabby carpets, ancient drapes, a reservation desk concealed behind an unmarked door. The third floor, meanwhile, sparkles with cut glass, modern art, and cool comfort, and the receptionist rushes to silence a vacuum cleaner when its sound interrupts a casual conversation. The prices for all this are about 50% higher than on the second and fourth floor, but during my three days in Riga, almost every Eurolink room was booked every night. (More information on the Eurolink and Hotel de Rome is on Page L15 in the Guidebook accompanying this week's cover story.)
Meanwhile, in downtown Vilnius, Lithuania, basketball star Sarunas Marciulionis has elbowed his way into the hotel scene. Marciulionis, who grew up in Lithuania, now plays for the National Basketball Assn.'s Golden State Warriors. But workers in his employ have rebuilt a former dormitory as the 26-unit Hotel Sarunas (Raitininku 4; 011-7-0122- 353-888; reservations from the United States can be made at 510-943-1666). The place opened June 1, with prices from $55 to $120.
"He gutted everything and started anew," said Danute Ankaitis, a Bay Area friend of Marciulionis who handles reservations from the U.S. for the hotel. "How he came up with the idea, I don't know."
The list goes on.
Last spring in Tallinn, Estonia, an 265-foot Russian passenger ship tied up near Pirita Beach and went into business as the More Hotel. Offering 60 tiny compartments (and toilets down the hall) to mostly Finnish and Swedish bargain-hunters, the proprietors charge about $25 nightly for a single room, about $40 for a double. The galley is open, and serves a $1.25 lamb lunch that isn't bad. The floating hotel returns to Russia in the fall.
With direct phone calls now theoretically possible, persistent travelers can book their own accommodations in many of these places. For those less inclined to struggle with late-night calls (the Baltic nations are 10 hours ahead of Pacific Standard Time) and often-jammed phone lines, scores of U.S. travel agencies now claim specialties in tours and individual travel to the Baltics.
Geidre A. Ambrozaitis, editor of the American Baltic News in Kalamazoo, Mich., says she has seen good results from American Travel (9439 S. Kedzie Ave., Evergreen Park, Ill. 60642; 708-422-3000), Baltic-American Holidays (501 Fifth Ave., New York, N.Y. 10017; 800-835-6688), and Biruta's Tours (1872 Lexington Ave., San Mateo, Calif. 94402; 415-349-1622).
A warning: Some travel agents and tour operators apparently still book Baltic hotel reservations through Intourist officials in Moscow, a process that can yield substantially inflated prices. Biruta Sereda, the Latvian-born travel consultant who owns Biruta's tours in San Mateo, warns that when it comes to the Baltics, "the average travel agent is very dumb" and may be unaware of recently opened private ventures.
"They just don't investigate beyond the computer," said Sereda. "And these places aren't in the computer."
Certainly, Hans Bjorkman's place isn't in many computers.
On June 25, the night of his much-anticipated opening, I directed a dubious Latvian cabbie to the address of the Riga Hostel. Picking my way through flaking, gray buildings, through a dreary lobby and past a sour-faced matron, I caught the host on his way out. He was not happy.
"Did you get my message?" he asked. I had not. I was staying at the Latvija.
"The hostel is closed," he said. "I'm leaving myself in a few minutes."
Complications had arisen. The school objected to the directional signs he'd put up around the neighborhood. The renovations weren't done. The music school administration didn't want the hostel to open until July 1. And a young female music student seemed to be setting up summer residence in a room Bjorkman had rented.
"That's interesting," he said, eyeing the girl as she unpacked boxes in the freshly painted room.
The only guest to show up at the hostel, an understanding Englishman from Hong Kong named Vincent Madren, sat in an undershirt on what might or might not be his bed. All was in doubt.
But Baltic dramas never seem to yield predictable endings. The lone guest was eventually assured a bed. He, Bjorkman and I adjourned to a fine evening of food, drink and travel tales. Just a few days ago I got a telex from Riga, Latvia.
"HI," it read. "THE HOSTEL IS OPEN 7 GUESTS A NIGHT APPROX . . . HANS."