• 2002-03-07
Tourism is the fastest growing industry in the world. What a shame it would be, then, if three fast-growing economies jeopardized the future of their own tourism industries because of a bad reputation for crime.

Crime levels in the Baltic states are minuscule, of course, in comparison with many places around the world. Tourists are pickpocketed in every major European city. It can happen to anyone, anywhere. Paris, the most visited city in the world, recorded a 10 percent rise in street attacks last year.

But the situation in cities like Tallinn is potentially much more serious. Estonia, like Latvia and Lithuania, is struggling to establish a reputation, build a "brand" for itself, and carve a permanent niche in an already crowded global tourism market.

If crime levels rise, it will be hard for the Baltic states to shake that reputation. Tourism is not an impulse buy. It's a carefully considered decision. Personal safety has become one of the most important factors when choosing a vacation destination. Tourist locations that have gained crime-riddled reputations find it hard to retain their tourism industries.

The idea to bring a few more police officers into the streets of Tallinn is a good move. Much of the tourism crime in the city takes place on just a handful of streets - particularly Mere Boulevard, which leads from the passenger pier to the center, and Viru Street. The thieves are easily spotted, usually fairly well-dressed young men standing alone or in pairs. Their victims are predominantly drunk Finns. With a handful of officers looking after these two streets, the Finns and everybody else would be a good deal safer.

The tourists can also help. They can stop becoming such easy prey. They're tempting targets because they carry large wads of cash and other valuable possessions with them. They tend to engage in risky activities like visiting unfamiliar nightclubs and bars. They're usually ignorant of the local language, signs, cultures and customs. And residents frequently think tourists are aggressive and insensitive to local norms. Stop doing all that and no tourism police would ever be needed.

But that's easy to say. Crime is usually unavoidable. In the Baltic states, criminals have been known to trick their way into foreigners' apartments or hotel rooms. This happened to a fellow colleague at The Baltic Times in Riga last week. He was tied to a chair for 24 hours as his captors demanded thousands of lats. He finally convinced them to let him go to visit the bank, and then escaped.

Crime can indeed happen to anyone, anywhere.