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FOLLOWING THE SUN: Estonian tourists have a special relationship with Egypt’s culture and climate.
TALLINN - Where tourists go, their governments will follow. That seems to be the message behind the announcement that Estonia and Latvia will jointly open its first embassy in the Middle East. While the level of trade and diplomatic interaction between the states is marginal, the amount of tourists going to Egypt each year from Estonia makes this embassy an important one for the Baltic nation.
A shocking statistic demonstrates the Egyptian-Estonian relationship. In terms of percentage, more Estonian tourists visit Egypt each year than do the residents of any other country. Indeed, prior to the current financial crisis, roughly five percent of all Estonians visited Egypt annually. Perhaps this flood of Estonians to Egypt marks the largest percentage of the population of one country to visit another country on a different continent, anywhere in the world.
It has become something of a tradition for Estonian and Latvian snowbirds to escape the harsh Northern European winters with a getaway to Egypt. Even Estonian President Toomas Ilves has commented in the past on how Estonians have a special fondness for the Egyptian “culture and climate.”
In 2007, one in twenty Estonians visited Egypt. This tourist migration is somewhat more remarkable given that no direct flights link Egypt and Estonia. However, seasonal flights from Latvia, the airhub of the Baltics, to Red Sea resort towns like Hurghada are available.
Bookshops in cities across Estonia, from Tallinn to Tartu, carry a handful of Egyptian themed titles. On visits to Egypt, Estonian tourists are surprised to find souvenir vendors who have learned a smattering of Estonian, one of the world’s more difficult languages.
Estonians have long had a special link with Egypt. Before the Soviet occupation of 1945-1991, a vibrant Estonian diaspora was found around the world. This led legendary American author Ernest Hemingway to write, “There is an Estonian in every harbor.” During the 1920s and 1930s, Egypt was one such harbor. During the years before World War II, dozens of Estonians moved to Egypt. Some were ex-czarist soldiers with their refugee families, some missionaries or nuns, and of course a few were sailors.
Egypt re-recognized the independence of Estonia and the other Baltic states in 1991, and the two states have since enjoyed cordial relations. In the past, the Estonian government has pressed Egypt for visa-free travel for Estonian tourists. The removal of this travel tariff would only serve to increase the amount of Estonian visitors to Egypt each year. Egypt has demurred to extend this privilege to this Baltic nation of 1.3 million. Egypt does hope to raise the number of annual visitors to 14 million by 2011. Currently, some seventy percent of Egypt’s visitors come from Europe. These European visitors come mostly from Russia, Britain, Italy, and Germany.
Other than the important tourisms links, the economic relationship between the two states remains marginal. At no time in the past decade did Estonian exports to Egypt top 50 million euros. Egyptian exports to Estonia are minimal.