TALLINN - Estonia's travel industry got a large stone in its holiday stocking this year as the number of Russian tourists making the traditional New Year's trip to Tallinn suffered a serious dip. According to figures released by the Foreign Ministry, the number of single-entry visa applications for travel to Estonia from Russia dropped significantly for December, compared to last year.
Estonian consulates in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Pskov received a total of 10,000 applications last month, the ministry told The Baltic Times, a figure which Russia's RIA Novosti claims is about half of the 2006 figure.
The reduced number of visitors from Russia has had a deeper impact than merely reducing the amount of Russian language heard on the streets of Tallinn. Local hotels and businesses have felt the negative effects of reduced travel during the holiday season.
"The Russian people visit mostly in December and it is a very important part of sales," said Anu Soosaar, accommodation manager of Sokos Hotel Viru in Tallinn. Reservations at the hotel were down by close to 50 percent, she said.
When asked what the main cause of the lull in travel to Estonia was, Soosaar immediately referred to the events surrounding the removal of the Bronze Soldier monument. "What happened in April last year, people remember very well," she said.
In addition to the April riots, however, there is another main factor widely viewed as causing this drop: expansion of the Schengen zone to include Estonia. When new visa regulations came into effect on Dec. 21, Estonia became the eastern edge of a 24-country borderless travel area extending all the way to Portugal.
Soosaar claims that hotels in Finland received an unexpected boost, with many Russian travelers switching their destinations to locations farther north. Simpler Finnish visa procedures also contributed to this switch, with Estonian visas often taking close to two weeks for processing.
However, Mariann Sudakov, a spokesperson from the Foreign Ministry, indicated that the falling visa application figures could be misleading.
"The affect of last year's April incident on Russian tourists' travel to Estonia was minor," she wrote in an e-mail to The Baltic Times.
She pointed to a change last June in border regulations which allowed Russian citizens to apply for multiple-entry visas, meaning the single-entry visa figure may no longer be a valid indicator.
Also, Sudakov said, the new possibility that Estonia is a second or third stop on a broader Schengen tour could be another factor. "People who have formerly been issued Schengen visas can also travel to Estonia after the expansion of the Schengen zone without the need to apply for an extra visa," she wrote.
Even those who are feeling the impact of this year's slump, however, see it as a temporary phenomenon and believe bookings will be back on track soon. "We expect next year will be better," Soosaar said.
Others in the travel industry took an even more optimistic view of recent developments.
Weighing the various factors involved, Mari-Liis Ruutsalu, a PR manager for ESTravel, remains hopeful that numbers of Russian visitors will increase thanks to Schengen.
"We think that the Bronze Soldier case has had an impact on the tourism from Russia. The Schengen zone has had a more positive influence, because Estonia will receive tourists from Russia with the so-called Finnish visa."