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Estonia is fastest growing tourist spot in Europe

Mar 16, 2000
By Jaclyn M. Sindrich

TALLINN - In 1999, backpackers saturated the red light district of Amsterdam. Yuppies spent hours and wads of cash admiring the art and architecture of Bilbao's Guggenheim, and the retired arrived in droves to sun on the turquoise coast of Crete. It comes as no surprise that countries like the Netherlands, Spain and Greece are vacation meccas.

But last year, Estonia attracted visitors at a faster rate than any of them. In fact, Estonia is now the fastest growing tourism country in all of Europe, according to the World Tourism Organization.

In 1999, about 3.18 million people traveled to Estonia, up 9 percent from 1998. Compare that to 1993, when just 1.6 million people visited.

Tallinn is the most popular destination within the Baltic nation, followed by Parnu, Tartu and the Estonian islands.

Not only are tourists coming in bigger numbers, but they are also staying longer. The total of overnight visitors shot up 15 percent from the previous year.

Considering that Estonia hasn't quite become a household word far outside its boundaries, the news may come as a surprise. For the natives, though, it is difficult not to notice the many lost souls snapping photos while roaming down Tallinn's main street, Viru, during the day even in the middle of a frigid March.

Finns, who make up two-thirds of all tourists to Estonia, need only make a short ferry trip across the sea from Helsinki to Tallinn, where they can explore the charming capital and, notably, enjoy the cheaper goods. Mocking the northerly neighbors is not an uncommon practice. The preferred pseudonym: "vodka tourists."

"Vodka tourists" bring money to the Estonian economy - a lot of money. In 1999, tourism revenue was an estimated 10 billion kroons ($600 million), or about 17 percent of the country's GDP, according to Kristel Rammo, research specialist at the Estonian Tourism Board.

The board's Web site, tourism.ee, registered 1.7 million hits last year, Rammo said. Advertising is also done through participating in travel fairs, hosting press groups from abroad and distributing brochures about the medieval and cultural lures of Estonia.

However, a survey taken by the Estonian Tourism Board doesn't offer many clues in pinning down exactly why there has been such an increase. Instead, a smattering of reasons for visiting Estonia lists everything from its inexpensiveness to family ties to wanting to see a new place or how the country has developed.

Eddy Pont, assistant editor of the popular Tallinn in Your Pocket guidebook, sounds optimistic about the country's number-one rating as a growing tourist hot spot and said Estonians are generally welcoming to tourists.

"It's important that Estonians learn about other cultures and it's important for local people to teach [tourists] what the real Estonia is all about," she said.

Pont, a native of Tallinn, sees tourism as an opportunity for an exchange of information and culture, which is vital to a tiny country like Estonia. She did not, however, stamp her seal of approval on illimitable tourism and free borders.

"For those that come to Estonia not just as tourists, but to mix languages and live, for some Estonians this will be too much to bear," she said. She acknowledged it as still largely a problem of larger countries with ethnic and cultural tensions, such as in Germany or Great Britain.

"It is a tradition that foreigners are invaders, and some bits of this are left," said Auri Hakomaa, manager of Tallinn's medieval-themed Olde Hansa restaurant.

For now, though, most worries are overshadowed by mutual curiosity in the North American and West European visitors, and as Hakomaa would agree, perhaps more so by their positive economic influence.

Hakomaa owes no less than half of his 1,000 client per day restaurant business to tourists.

"Tourism is really a gift from heaven," he said. And it is a gift, as he sees it, bestowed uniquely upon Estonia: "There are fantastic places you can see all over the world that are empty [of tourists.] And when you look at what Estonia has to offer, what is so spectacular?"

Hakomaa explained that tourists seem to naturally flow into Estonia, with little or no help from extensive advertising campaigns that countries like Spain, Thailand and Turkey have.

"Tourism is so huge, but decision makers don't know how huge it is," he warned. There haven't been enough intensive studies on why people come to Estonia, he explained, and there needs to be if they leave one day and it isn't known why they came in the first place.

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