FERRIES - Waterways to old Europe

  • 2008-03-19
  • By Yury Sogis

In the rest of the world its planes trains and automobile. Here in the Baltics we do things different, everybody  travels by sea. In fact boats are so popular that some people don't even bother to get off at their destination. All from a starting point where there was no commercial sea travel a couple of decades ago. This week's  insider looks at why the industry has been so successful. 

RIGA - The young probably don't even remember that only twenty years ago it was pretty difficult to cross the Baltic sea on a West-bound passenger vessel at all. Today a flotilla of ferries ply the seas linking up all the major cities of the region.

What's more the ships are getting bigger, better, faster and more luxurious. One thing is for sure, Balts like to travel by sea and the passenger ferry industry as a result, has become one of the few  industries where the region can truly claim to lead the world.

The market is totally dominated by the Estonian company, Tallink Group, which operates in the Baltics on seven shipping routes under the brands of "Tallink," "Silja Line," and "Seawind." Additionally Tallink operates two hotels in Tallinn under the hotel chain brand "Tallink Hotels."

Last month alone Tallink Group transported 606,058 passengers. That's an increase of  33% compared to February 2007. As business has boomed so has quality of travel. The Tallinn-Helsinki route saw the biggest increase of 50 percent from the previous year. Ever striving to improve their service, Tallink last year launched the ferry liner "Star" which dealt with an age old difficult problem, how to get across the Baltic sea quickly in winter.

It is not just the route between Tallinn and Helsinki which  is growing. Tallink operates two vessels which run between Sweden and Latvia. Its  popular cruise ship, the Baltica was out of service for six days in February but it is now back in operation.

The story of Tallink is like a business fairytale, specifically the Ugly Duckling. The modern dynamic company of today  evolved out of the Soviet Estonian Shipping Company (ESCO). The Tallinn-Helsinki round year service became more frequent after 1989. In 1993 Tallink became an entirely Estonian owned company when the Finnish company Palkkiyhtyma sold it's interest. More ferries were brought into service all through the 1990's but it wasn't until the turn of the century that the company really started to pull ahead of its rivals when it bought Estline. The company was listed on the stock exchange in 2005.  Two years ago Tallink purchased Superfast Ferries from the Attica group opening up the route between Riga and Stockholm.

There is no end to the ambition of Tallink. Just this month they launched a new cruise ferry the Baltic Princess. The ship, built at Aker Yards shipyard in Helsinki, took three years to build at a cost of 165 million.

At 212 metres long and 29 metres wide "Baltic Princess" is one of the biggest cruise ferries in the Baltics with a capacity for 2,800 passengers. The ship was built for comfort and luxury. It boasts  927 cabins, several restaurants and nightclubs as well as a 450 seat conference center making the ship more like a floating hotel than a passenger ferry carrier.

The company plans to replace the outmoded cruise ferry "Galaxy" on the Tallinn - Helsinki route this summer. M/S "Galaxy" will continue to run along the  Turku-Stockholm route.

"We are looking forward to offering new cruising experiences to all of our passengers," said Keijo Mehtonen a  Tallink executive.

"It  means a new ship not only for the Tallinn - Helsinki route, but at the same time for three routes, when re-routing the two vessels," he said.

The plans for expansion don't stop there. This is the fourth cruise ferry that the Rauma based shipbuilders have built for Tallink and they are already starting a fifth.

"We are proud of Tallink's confidence in our ship building expertise. It's proved a long lasting relationship," said Juha Heikinheimo, of Aker Shipyards.

The mania for sea travel in the region has propelled the Finnish company into one of the leading ship builders in the world. The company of course show cases itself as having sturdy Finnish reliability and high quality, but it also prides itself on state-of-the-art technology, and building ships that meet the highest safety standards, are eco-friendly and cost effective.

Although prices of ferry tickets are going up -- largely fuelled by increases in fuel prices -- which the ferry companies, like the airlines, have passed on to the customer, travelling by ferry remains the most relaxed and romantic way of crossing the Baltics.