Baltic states reopen shared borders for travel bubble
Grenctāle (Latvia) (AFP)
Baltic states Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania reopened their shared borders on Friday, allowing citizens to move freely for business and pleasure in a travel bubble after two months of coronavirus restrictions.
The sister countries, which are members of the European Union and the passport-free Schengen zone, had been closed since mid-March to all traffic except commercial cargo and returning citizens.
Their borders with Belarus and Russia remain sealed however, with military patrols reinforcing regular guards.
"The reopening of Baltic borders is an important milestone. Hotels and restaurants are looking forward with renewed hope," said Janis Pinnis, head of Latvia's hospitality association.
"We're already seeing the first reservations come in," he told public broadcaster Latvijas Radio.
Ticket sales for international bus travel between Baltic cities are back up and running, while flights between the countries are expected to resume at the end of the month.
Also happy to see borders reopen are Latvia's "alco supermarkets" which have sprung up in recent years to cater to Estonians and Lithuanians crossing over for cheaper, lower-taxed alcohol.
"Let's hope that reopening the borders brings back our neighbours, starting today," said the cashier at the Alko 1000 Market warehouse just a short distance from the border in the Latvian village of Grenctale.
Over the last couple months, "only locals had been coming in. Our liquor store's income has gone down tenfold," she told AFP.
- Time for ice-cream -
Before the time of coronavirus, Estonians had enjoyed going over to Latvia for dessert.
"Cross-border shopping was very popular before COVID-19. Our border town of Rujiena was full of Estonians on weekends. They love our ice cream," said Ilona Dukure, editor of the Latvian regional weekly Rujienas Vestnesis.
"However, people on this side of the border are concerned that Estonia's epidemic is a bit worse than ours," she told AFP.
To date 19 people have died from coronavirus in Latvia, a country of 1.9 million people. Estonia has a lower population of 1.3 million but a higher death toll of 63, while Lithuania has reported 54 fatalities out of population of 2.8 million
Not all the Baltic border posts are yet up and running.
In the Latvian border village of Skaistkalne, the bridge over the river will be out of commission until next week because of unremoved roadblocks on the Lithuanian side.
"We were hoping to cross the border here and finally get to Lithuania, but it looks like we'll have to find another entry point," said Valeriy, a construction worker driving over Thursday with his friend.
"We're working in Norway and are returning home to Vilnius after months of hard work," he told AFP.
They were redirected some 50 kilometres (30 miles) west to Grenctale, where an abandoned checkpoint has been manned by border guards since March.
On Thursday, around 20 large trucks could still be spotted in line there, as Lithuanian border guards checked the temperature of their drivers.
But by Friday, both sides of the border post were free of queues.
© 2020 AFP