TALLINN - The summer tourism season began with a misunderstanding. On May 5 the Postimees daily led with a worrying article about the dearth of hotel rooms in Estonia's biggest towns. Yet hospitality industry officials affirm that the article is deceptive.
To illustrate its front-page story, the Postimees daily mentioned the plight of a Finnish family that arrived in Tallinn, without reservations, to celebrate the country's EU accession anniversary. It was only by sheer luck that the family found a roof to cover their heads in the Sokos Viru hotel, the daily reported.
Response from the hotel industry was immediate. Tarmo Sumberg, board chairman of the Estonian Hotel and Restaurant Association and owner of the Three Sisters boutique hotel, calmly pointed out that more than 4,000 new hotel accommodations have appeared within the last two years.
Tourist organizations, he explained, were not surprised that interest in Estonia was growing dynamically, and they had planned accordingly. Finding a place to spend the night in the middle of summer is hard in any European city, be it Strasbourg or Tallinn. But what really hits hotel owners in Estonia, Sumberg stressed, was the winter lull.
"Every hotel owner dreams of 100 percent sold-out rooms 365 days a year, but even with a 120-day summer season it sounds like utopia," he stated.
For people planning to come to Estonia, especially during the rush season, they should take care of accommodation at least three to four weeks beforehand, Sumberg recommended.
According to reports, Estonian hotels are 50 - 75 percent sold out on average and may not necessarily be full on weekends.
There are occasions when most accommodations are booked, such as during the Hansa Days festival. Donald Visnapuu, EHRL managing director, told the Eesti Paevaleht daily that many tour operators make reservations six to 12 months in advance, and then often nullify them in part.
Nearly 10,000 foreign guests can be accommodated at any one time in Tallinn. The exact number of beds is unavailable since new hotels have spread and several rural recreational places, which do not correspond to standard requirements, are often not included in databases. The Statistical Office last counted in December 2004: it found that the total number of hotel rooms in the country was 12,417, while in Tallinn it was 5,210.
Surveys show that, in the year since Estonia joined the EU, tourist inflow has increased by some 25 percent. Most come for leisure. If in March 2004
74,059 passengers passed through Tallinn International Airport, then the same month this year the number was 104,903. The amount of businessmen who stayed overnight doubled last year to 50,000 compared with two years ago.
The Estonian Tourist Board reported that financial support of the national travel industry this year would reach 45 million kroons (2.9 million euros). Promotional campaigns will be held in Finland, Germany, Great Britain and Russia, to name a few. In Sweden, for instance, Estonia will be promoted as a country that provides healthy tourism, such as spa-resorts.
Indeed, spas take the lead in the tourist draw. Health resort Georg Otsa Spa in Kuresaare was chosen as the best hotel in Estonia for 2004, and Saaremaa spas recently reported that their sales revenue amounted to 24.7 million kroons.
Still, as Donald Visnapuu told The Baltic Times, the main places of interest remain Tallinn's medieval Old Town and Estonia's untouched nature. Positive tourist reviews of the capital are published on a regular basis. According to the Tallinn Tourist Web site, the city attracted a record number of tourism journalists since Estonia joined the EU. The Tallinn City Tourist Office & Convention Bureau handled 228 visits by journalists last year.
As Helena Tshistova-Pohlak, bureau marketing manager said, the British life-style magazine Harpers & Queen listed Tallinn as a "must" travel destination for all gourmets in its 2005 Restaurant Guide, and the U.S.-based magazine Newsweek regarded Tallinn as one of the world's 12 style-capitals alongside Milan and New York.
Enterprise Estonia has received some 2.8 million kroons from EU Phare Funds to produce an image of Tallinn as a convenient place for business meetings and trade fairs. This month it will announce a promotional film idea and script competition. Two versions 's one and five minutes long 's must be ready by autumn. Ultimately, these short stories about Tallinn will be shown at different marketing events, while tourist firms that use the content in their presentations will receive it for free from the city administration.
Many guests will continue to use the Tallinn Card, a tourist discount voucher now supported by 84 enterprises. The card celebrates its seventh birthday in 2005, and during its existence it has become rather popular among foreign visitors. Some 50,000 tourists found it profitable to take a free sightseeing excursion with the card. It costs nearly 16 euros per day for adults, and among restaurant and cafe discounts, free transport and entrances to 40 museums, the card was recently filled up with audio-guide service in English, German, Russian, Finnish or Swedish.