PARNU - In an effort to entice visitors year-round, Estonia's premier resort Parnu is trying to overcome its image as a "summer capital" with just two-months of beach-centered festivities.
For city officials, it is a conundrum all the more frustrating since it was they who fostered the summer-capital image back in 1996 as a marketing ploy to revive the tourist flow after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Once a popular resort in the 19th century, when about 30,000 to 40,000 people visited each month, Parnu now sees about 150,000 visitors on a monthly basis. But the town wants more, and it wants them to call during all four seasons.
"We have lots of people coming in June, July, August, and it is often impossible to get a hotel room at that time. But in other seasons the town is empty," Kaido Koppel of the Parnu city government's planning department says.
In recent months major attractions have opened to lure nonlocals and foreigners. The major ones are an aquapark and a new multipurpose concert hall, which also serves as a conference hall for 500 people and a theater. And soon to come will be a golf course outside town - expected opening is August - with perhaps a second to follow in 2005.
According to Koppel, the strategy of diversifying choice seems to be working, as hotel-occupancy rates have been on the rise.
"A lot depends upon the weather, but cultural and sport activities remain available even in winter," Koppel says, adding that the city was considering new sport arenas.
With the help of EU structural funds, Parnu hopes to build a new beach promenade and a number of social and municipal buildings, while the EU-financed Via Baltica project could attract more businesses to the area. Government officials are also discussing the option of building a technological park next to an airfield that would be able to accommodate small private aircrafts and even jets.
However, the municipality is leery of projects that could have an environmental backlash.
"The town cannot risk bringing in some lucrative chemical production if it potentially destroys the beach and subsequently the town," says Koppel.
Eda Toomsalu, senior tourism specialist with the Parnu city government, says the town regularly promotes itself in international tourism fairs held by priority market countries - Finland, Russia, Latvia, Sweden and Germany. A delegation from Parnu participated in a Norwegian tourism fair for the first time earlier this year.
"Scandinavian tourists value Parnu for its spas. I met one gentleman from that region who said he had massage sessions four times a day," Koppel says.
When the tour season is booming, there are many speculations as to why foreign tourists choose Parnu over Jurmala, Palanga or Nida. According to Toomsalu, there is one natural reason - the coastline in Parnu faces south unlike the others, which means water there remains warm for a longer period.
"Also, if we will look at the general travel routes from Finland or Sweden to Estonia, most people come by boat to Tallinn, and for them Parnu is closer than Jurmala or Palanga," the specialist said.
Another potential advantage is a row of events the city organizes during the summer. In addition to annual classical and mainstream music events, the city hosts drama, sport, film and art festivals.
As municipal governments in Estonia are mainly funded by the residents' income tax, it is difficult to say exactly how much money one tourist brings into the municipal budget.
"If there were no income from tourists, however, I think half the businesses would have to close. About 40 percent of the town residents are employed in the businesses serving the tourism industry directly, like hotels, or indirectly," says Koppel.
According to a survey conducted by the municipality, one tourist spends an average of 100 euros per day in Parnu, and about 40 to 60 percent of that sum goes to accommodation expenses. The average tourist stays for about one week.
"The area in town where most of the visitors go has remained the same. That is why we created the idea of the Old Resort and the New Resort areas - or basically expanding the tourist area," Koppel says. "We are looking forward to the feedback from the businesses."