The development of Estonia's tourism sector mirrors the development of the country, as tourism has played a significantly large role in the rapid transition from ineffective planning to full-scale competition. During the early years, when Russian troops still stood on Estonian soil, when people queued to gape at the goods in the window instead of waiting to purchase what little bread the store had, tourism was a godsend to Tallinn and the country. The short 85-kilometre stretch from Tallinn to Helsinki provided a vital lifeline at a time when the rest of the world would still not touch Estonia with a ten-foot pole. And although a vast majority of the conduits of western culture and, most importantly, cash, were in Estonia to partake in alcohol tourism, it was tourism nonetheless.
With the advantage of being only a 4.5-hour ferry ride (before the arrival of 1.5-hour hydrofoils and, of course, the helicopters) away from Finland, Estonia reaped early benefits from alcohol tourism, which helped fuel the development of the country. Latvia and Lithuania did not enjoy the luxury of having a relatively rich neighbour (albeit in recession at the time, Finns remained thirsty) who pumped in significant funds to help develop the service and tourism sectors and help balance the deficit incurred from heavily unbalanced trade.
For Finns, too, the complete opening of Estonia after the restoration of independence was a dream come true. There is no other place in the world where Finns can feel somewhat at home, speak their own language and be understood and consume a vast amount of alcohol not weighed down by heavy Finnish taxes; and, what's more, all this, close enough for a day-trip. Eventually, as the glazed eyes cleared, many also began shopping heavily in Estonia, where goods (legal or otherwise) were cheaper and taxes were lower. And as the chain often runs, businessmen soon showed up, pumping funds into Estonia that were easily recoverable from the pockets of their own countryfolk. Within a short time, outlets of famous Finnish retailers such as Seppälä and Stockmann appeared in Tallinn, flooded with Finnish bargain-hunters.
The Finnish invasion, though sometimes earning negative remarks for the antics of some drunken visitors, pushed Estonia closer to the European Union than many give it credit for. The alcohol revenue essentially developed Tallinn's service and tourism industries, making Estonia more attractive to other foreign tourists and businessmen. In a few years, Tallinn changed from a drab grey town with a beautiful old town to a shiny, exciting city with a beautiful old town. A castle and mediaeval towers may bring in tourists but won't keep them for long without the proper facilities.
The phenomenally large number of Finnish tourists allowed for the hotel industry to develop. Only a handful of years ago, Tallinn was blighted by only three usable (one only barely) hotels, an assortment of dodgy dives and Intourist relics. However, those relics have since been transformed or demolished, with competition for the growing horde of international visitors driving up quality. It also helped develop the restaurant and bar industry, as Finnish funds allowed for more exotic and interesting eateries and watering holes to spring up on nearly every street in central Tallinn.
With this quick impetus to grow, the city's tourism facilities made the country's focal point more attractive to foreigners, including investors. This has also not been lost on the nouveaux riche, as they enjoy the high-class bars and five-star restaurants that owe their foundations to the Finnish invasion. Not many tourists would imagine that in little Tallinn ethnic cuisine has become a phenomenon. Within a five-minute car ride, the variety of authentic foreign cuisine found is amazing: Argentine, Caucasian, Chinese, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Indian, Italian, Japanese (including sushi), Korean, Mexican, Russian, Scottish, Thai and, of course, the rare Estonian!
With a fully functioning and ever-growing tourism sector (a new 20+ storey Radisson hotel is currently under construction in central Tallinn), the various offerings of Tallinn's cultural and architectural history can be presented to higher class travellers from all over the world. Tallinn has one of the most fascinating mediaeval old towns in Northern Europe, as most of the city's old wall and towers, as well as the crooked cobblestone streets, remain. The old castle at Toompea, with the symbolic Pikk Hermann tower, now houses the Riigikogu - one of the few pink-coloured parliament buildings in the world. The churches, including the famous Toomkirik, the picturesque St Nicholas Church (Niguliste kirik, which houses Berndt Notke's famous painting Danse Macabre) and the Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevski Church across from the Parliament, provide a fascinating look at changes in architecture. Of course, there is the beautiful Town Hall Square, with its pristine, mediaeval Town Hall, and in the summer, hundreds of people enjoying a beer in the many beer tents erected in the square.
However, to return to the correlation between the country's development and its tourism sector, a negative reality is the intense focus on the capital, Tallinn. With most foreign travel directed to the city's revamped airport or ever-growing port area (and as of this April, a helipad as well), many tourists and businessmen never leave the central part of the city. As with economic development, the regions have fallen far behind Tallinn in the tourism sector as well. Besides the backpackers travelling by bus or Finnish alcohol tourists looking for cheaper alternatives, the other remarkable towns in Estonia rarely see foreign tourists.
This is a shame, as there remain many less-discovered gems throughout the country. University town Tartu, known as the brain of the country, boasts remarkable architecture and history, as well as museums catering to various interests.
Narva, slighted by diminished interest due partly to outdated stereotypes, fails to offer the facilities to attract the tourists it richly deserves. In not many other places in the world can one see two opposing castles, bisected
Then there is the beautiful castle in Rakvere, the therapeutic mud and spas of Haapsalu and Pärnu, the beautiful castle in Kuressaare, the tranquillity of the island of Hiiumaa and the juxtaposition of bustle and calm of Otepää. The latter, which is known as the "winter capital" of Estonia for its slopes and cross-country courses, also features the Pühajärv (Holy Lake), a favourite of the Dalai Lama for its tranquillity and beauty. Every corner of the country has something special to contribute to its development and tourism industry; however, in many cases, it has become a chicken and egg debate.
Though the Tourism Agency does a fine job in promoting regional tourism, especially ecotourism in the many national parks, nature reserves and island reservations, travelling beyond Tallinn for the average tourist is often difficult. As Estonia is a small country and its train system beset with problems, travellers are faced with using the bus system. Although efficient and cheap, dealing with the local service could be an intimidating and inconvenient factor for many tourists. Being stuck on a bus for five hours with standing-room only on a very hot summer day is not for every tourist that may want to visit Otepää or Viljandi.
However, some regions are winning the battle - again, thanks to Finnish alcohol tourists. Tallinn, shockingly, has become too expensive for some Finnish travellers, and today, regional locales
The country's tourism sector has matured at an amazing pace over the last few years. Though a large number of the tourists remain Finnish one-day alcohol and shopping tourists, the country - especially Tallinn - has become a tourist attraction in itself. Recently, the World Tourism Organisation said Estonia had the fastest growing tourism industry in Europe in 1999, with overnight stays up by 15 per cent and total number of tourists by 9 per cent. Also, Cruise European News noted Tallinn as the second highest port-of-call for cruise ships in Europe in 1999, with 190 calls (surpassing Helsinki's 168 and not too far under Lisbon's 230). It has become more common to hear not only Finnish from packs of tourists, but English, Italian, French and the inevitable Japanese as well.
Though many these days would not attribute much credit to the hordes of Finnish tourists for Estonia's development (including the author himself, looking back at Amber Coast, A Nordic Freeze from 6 April 1999), it was their money spent in Estonia that provided the foundation for the development of Estonia's tourism sector and its all-around post-Soviet boom. So, next time you're in Tallinn, even if you think it is swill, have a Finnish Koff beer to toast its contribution to the development of a country.
Mel Huang, 6 April 2000
Photos courtesy of: the Estonian Tourist Board, the Estonian Institute and the City of Rakvere.