TALLINN - Aquaparks in Estonia have been popping up like mushrooms after a hot summer rain. Granted, the concept of an aquapark is quite liberal - a flume or two added to a "water center" that consists of a spa, swimming pool and sauna - but they have nonetheless spread across the country.
And while they do not compete with one another, that hasn't stopped park owners from being creative in order to attract tourists.
Today there are seven major "water centers," the largest of which is in Parnu (also the biggest in the Baltics), followed by Viimsi Tervis Spa near Tallinn and Laulasmaa Spa on Hiiumaa Island.
Tarmo Tuisk, head of the Haapsalu Water Center that opened in March 2003, explained that the business concept of the water center in western Estonia was to cater to both the sports-obsessed and the family more interested in slides and jacuzzis.
Tuisk said that in summer over a half of the center's visitors were tourists who came to visit Haapsalu's renowned spas, which Russian royalty used to enjoy in the 19th and 20th centuries.
"Today we have 150 to 200 visitors daily. We want to have more, but it seems difficult in our region. We can take 150 people at a time," he says.
To attract new clients, he says the center has arranged swimming courses for companies' staff and has introduced water aerobics and body-pump training.
The Haapsalu Water Center has been barely breaking even, Tuisk says, but he sees solid growth this year. 2003's turnover amounted to 4 million kroons (255,000 euros).
"Aquaparks in different towns in Estonia do not compete for one and the same audience, as their primary target group are local residents," he says.
The Aura aquapark in Tartu, open since 2001 and the largest in the country, registered a 20,000-euro profit in 2003. The park, the first such water complex in the Baltics, has a total area of 7,340 square meters and can simultaneously host 480 customers.
Marilin Kroon, marketing director of Aura, says the center has been actively developing since opening.
"The sports side of operations has been particularly fast growing. We have hundreds of kids attending our swimming club," says Kroon, who adds that the park's novelties include a climbing wall, a summer terrace and a conference room. They will soon bring in water bicycles that are now catching on in Europe.
Curiously, tourists from Latvia and Russia make up the main foreign clientele of Aura, whereas other water parks are often dominated by Finns. Aura's turnover last year exceeded 18 million kroons, and the average number of visitors daily stood at 1,200.
Describing the current situation, Kroon says, "Estonian summers can be very short. According to our experience people still have high demand for water leisure options and for swimming as a fitness option."
Tiina Kiibus, marketing director of the Tervise Paradiis aquapark in Parnu, says the company was satisfied with its operations. Having opened at the end of February, the 11,500-square-meter park, boasting a total capacity of 700 people, saw a wave of customers during the first month of operations. The park is also part of Tervise's larger complex that includes sports and leisure facilities, a casino and a hotel.
"In March we had about 900 visitors a day [in the aquapark alone], which was a predictably high number because the place was new. Now we have about 500 visitors a day," said Kiibus.
"It would be too greedy to expect more during the initial period, which we consider to last for about one year," she says.
The aquapark recently received publicity in the Estonian press for its idea of accommodating a crocodile in one of its pools. While this would certainly be an additional reason for kids to listen to their moms and behave, Kiibus said a final decision has not been made.
"There's a minizoo in Parnu, and its owner has a little crocodile. The owners problem is where to keep it when it grows up, and this problem is growing together with the crocodile," Kiibus explains.
The aquapark is polling customers to find out if they don't object to swimming under one roof with a reptile.