In the first seven months of this year 1.94 million foreigners visited Estonia, of whom one in four stayed in commercial accommodation.
Piret Kallas, project manager for tourism research at the tourist board, said the number of visitors staying overnight had increased by 13 percent and the length of their trips had increased by 17 percent although the number of tourists had increased by just 0.3 percent.
The Baltic Times asked several of those involved what lies ahead for Estonia's tourist industry.
Torbjorn Bodin, general manager of the Radisson SAS hotel, said the company's new hotel had not, as feared, pinched clients from competing hotels but had increased the amount of time visitors stayed in Estonia.
But Sigre Tompel, sales and marketing director at Domina Hotels and Resorts, said most hotels have suffered a downturn in 2001 as a result of changes in the sector.
According to the tourist board's statistics a foreign visitor spends an average of 1.6 nights staying in paid accommodation. Preliminary balance-of-payment statistics show that Estonia's revenue from tourism increased by 5 percent during the first half of 2001, amounting to 5.2 billion kroons ($ 306 million).
Tallinn Mayor Tonis Palts says tourism is not just economically important in its own right. It has a positive effect on other sectors, he said. He estimated that 1 million more tourists in Tallinn yearly would create 13,000 new jobs and half a million more tourists would leave an additional 60 million kroons in the city.
"As Tallinn's main attraction is its Old Town, special attention has to be paid to its improvement," said Palts.
At the tourism board, Piret Kallas said Estonia lacked unusual and interesting places where one could spend free time, adding that those which do exist are badly advertised. Another problem was a lack of accommodation in the cities of Parnu and Tallinn in summer, she said.
Opening the tourism fair Tourist 2001, Minister of Finance Siim Kallas on Sept. 20 said that while cycling around Estonia he had discovered a lack of places to stay overnight and eat. "We lack professionals who could generate new ideas," said Kallas. "We envy countries that have a lot of sunshine, where there is no rain and nature is beautiful. But we should use the opportunities offered by our own country more thoroughly."
The tourist board's findings show that visitors have started traveling out of Tallinn to other parts of Estonia. Besides the traditional tourist destinations of Parnu and Saaremaa, Tartu and other places in southern Estonia have become more popular.
Visitors from Poland have increased following the establishment of a Tallinn-Warsaw air connection in the autumn of last year. This summer the number of visitors from Poland was up 40 percent on the previous year. The number of visitors from Germany increased by one-third.
The duration overnight visitors from Finland are staying has also increased, while the total number of Finnish tourists has decreased. Many Japanese visitors now combine visits to Finland with a brief trip to Estonia, said Piret Kallas.
The number of visitors from Latvia and Lithuania rediscovering Estonia is also increasing. "Latvians have started to use more commercial accommodation services, the Lithuanians make short trips and transit trips," said Piret Kallas.
But not all the statistics indicate increases. The number of Swedish arrivals in Estonia has decreased by one-third, or 34,000, - a result attributed by the tourist board to changes in the schedule of the Tallinn- Stockholm ferry line. The increased cost of day trips is also thought to have decreased the number of people traveling between Estonia and Stockholm.
According to Bodin of the Radisson SAS, a 15 percent decrease in the value of Sweden's currency relative to the Estonian kroon since January this year is also deterring Swedes from visiting.
But Domina Hotels and Resorts may be attracting those who would formerly have stayed at the Radisson SAS. Tompel said the number of Swedes staying in her hotels had tripled. But she added that the murder of two Swedes here this year had deterred Swedes.
"Swedish newspapers tend to write about the bad things happening in the area, but Swedes that happen to come here are very much surprised in a positive way and are very likely to return," she said.
With safety concerns paramount following this month's terrorist attacks in the United States, Estonia should become a more attractive destination fro visitors from Western Europe and Russia, she said.
Overcoming seasonal fluctuations in occupancy (Tallinn's hotels are 90 percent occupied in summer and 37 percent in winter) must be a priority, said Tompel. "There are several ways of attracting visitors to Estonia in winter, but it depends on the financial resources available. They will come if you create an event. This can be connected to a hotel, but it is better if the whole city is involved. It could be for example a Ferrari race, a special contest, a sporting event or a concert. It is a pity that the Eurovision song contest takes place in May."
Bodin said Estonia should build on Estonia's reputation for a beautiful countryside, reasonable prices and musical events. Abroad, Estonia should particularly draw attention to opportunities for hunting and fishing and seeing magnificent wildlife and handicrafts.