A future travel market

  • 2002-04-25
  • Neil Taylor
It is unlikely that many people in the Baltic states were aware of the 36 new destinations that became linked to London by direct flights from the Easter weekend. Why should they care that Londoners can now reach Bergerac, Graz and Klagenfurt in two hours rather than in six?

The answer is clear: Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius are no longer "exclusive" destinations. Every country in Europe is now opening up its smaller cities, all of course "hidden gems," "a shopper's paradise" and with "a medieval town center."

The Baltics also need to worry about the fares being charged on most of these routes. If Britons have most of Europe at their feet for 75 pounds, will they pay 200 pounds, the usual minimum for all three Baltic countries?

In the countryside too, all of Europe is now clambering for the accolade of being greener than green. Whether to ensure the rural vote, to help disperse immigrants or to encourage a drift away from over-polluted cities, every government in the European Union is subsidizing small enterprises in the countryside which are linked to tourism.

The Scottish islands can claim to be as peaceful as Saaremaa, the river Avon to be as beautiful as the Gauja, and Traquair to be as inviting, and as haunted, as Trakai.

The Scots now have brochures in Japanese as well as in French and with texts appropriately adapted. So do the French, the Irish the Germans (and we must not forget the Welsh or English).

This is where all three Baltic countries always fail. Brochures and websites continue to be bland (and poor) translations of material produced for the local market. They are rarely checked by native speakers.

Foreign tourists will be attracted to Otepaa because of its links with Alexander Solzhenitsyn, with Jean-Paul Sartre, and with the Dalai Lama, not because of Jakob Hurt. In Vilnius, where Napoleon stayed is far more important than where Adam Mickiewicz lived.

It is cruel to have to point this out, but it is commercial reality. Every year I hope we will have seen the last "backside" of a building, the last "certified" guide and the last "hostess," but it has yet to be.

ITB, the German Tourism Fair, which is to travel what Frankfurt is to publishing, took place as usual in Berlin in mid-March. I was surprised to find inspiration at the Ukrainian stand, but I did. The product on offer was of course the same, but the descriptions in French, German and English were totally different. There were in fact two different leaflets in German, one being written for Austrians.

In each case, thought had clearly been given as to what would and would not interest a specific market. It is unusual to have to suggest a Ukrainian model for the Baltics to follow, but in this case they should do so.

Against this background, why then were the Baltic stands at the recent ITB Tourism Fair in Berlin so full of optimism and of potential clients? Although nobody official would be so tactless as to admit it in public, Sept. 11 has probably been beneficial. If some potential American clients are still staying at home, they have been more than replaced by others who feel 2002 is the year to travel north rather than south and east.

The "discoveries" that Western Europeans made in the early nineties are now being repeated by the Thais, the Japanese and the South Africans. Even French groups have been spotted in the Baltics, the ultimate accolade from a country where people normally retreat to their second homes for a holiday.

Air Baltic in Germany certainly showed their awareness of low-cost airlines. They were advertising their new Berlin-Riga service with an air fare of 9 euros. If nothing else, this will perhaps kill off the dreadful coaches most Latvians have to endure for their journeys west.

Foreign desks on most Western European newspapers gave up serious Baltics coverage very soon after 1991. The travel desks and the television holiday programs fortunately did not.

Hardly a weekend goes by in Britain or Germany without a seriously positive piece extolling the views from Toompea, St. Peters and Gediminas Hill or a claim to have discovered for the first time Padaste Manor, Cape Kolka or the Winter Garden at Kretinga.

Tallinn will shortly receive saturation coverage in the run-up to the Eurovision Song Contest. It's just as well there are now enough hotels there to meet the increased demand that is bound to follow.

As 11 years have now passed since independence, the Baltics are beginning to get repeat business. People whose only experience of the Estonian countryside is the open-air museum at Rocca Al Mare, are lured back to see Lahemaa and Holy Lake.

Land operators have benefited from the miserly four-hour glimpses of each capital that cruises are allowed. As these passengers rush back to their boats, they are determined to return! Repeat business is most evident in the city break market.

Given that "The Baltics" are still seen as one country by most potential visitors, it is assumed that an enjoyable stay in say Vilnius will be repeated in Riga and Tallinn. The experience turns out, of course, to be very different, but is as well received. For once, political ignorance may well be commercially beneficial!

If the Baltic states are worried about the competition from the West, they can still continue to look with relief toward the East. Toward the end of March, the British travel trade was completely underwhelmed by the sudden appearance of a circular from Belavia, the airline of Belarus. It proudly announced a fare from London to Minsk of 270 pounds provided travel was booked by the end of April and completed by the end of May. Of course the need for visas was ignored.

The worst nightmare of the tourist boards in the Baltic states must be that one of its CIS neighbors starts to take tourism seriously. For the moment, Russia, Ukraine and Belarus vie with each other for the most complex and most expensive visa system to inflict on all countries otherwise likely to produce tourists. Long may this continue, if the Baltics are to thrive.

Neil Taylor is the director of Regent Holidays, which specializes in travel to Eastern Europe. He is in Tallinn this week to promote his new book Estonia: The Bradt Travel Guide.