TALLINN - Although Estonians like to consider themselves as a Nordic people, they are - perhaps more often than they like - placed on the same peg as their Baltic neighbors to the south.
Estonians wish to be Europeans, but the label "former Soviet Union" is hard to erase.
A new poll shows that a majority of tourists regard Estonia as a rapidly developing, friendly and inexpensive country - but one with a worrisomely high crime rate.
ES Turu-Uuringud, an Eston-ian market research company, interviewed hundreds of tourists in Tallinn and found that many of the respondents pointed to the high level of crime in Estonia as a major drawback.
The company interviewed around 500 foreign tourists in October at the Tallinn passenger port and Tallinn Airport. Respondents had to be at least 18 years of age, and they had to stay at least one night in Estonia in order to be interviewed. A total of 26 nations were represented in the poll, ranging from Finns (majority) to Australians. Among them were students, businessmen and shopping tourists.
Despite the fact that Estonians tend to be introverted and rarely smile, respondents said that Estonians are a friendly and nice people. This is an important quality and surely one of the factors that gets tourists to come back.
And whether we like it or not, we are also a destination for shopping tourists. This is shown by the fact that cheap price level was second best quality outlined by tourists. This was emphasized by female tourists and Scandinavians, especially Finns.
Tallinn's Old Town, with its splendid architecture and unique medieval atmosphere, was highlighted as one of the main tourist magnets of Estonia.
Tourists also said many good words about Estonia's development prospects. In many cases they said Estonia was rapidly developing, in the European sense of the word.
In general, the majority opinion about Estonia boils down to that it is a small country with good development prospects, but that tourists should take care of their personal belongings and health while visiting the country.
Indeed, crime turned out to be the biggest fear of respondents: one in four tourists said that Estonia's biggest shortcoming was prostitution, pick-pocketing, fraud, drug addiction and other forms of crime.
We in Estonia should think well about the fact that hospitality here was rated so low by these tourists - i.e, Scandinavians who visit Estonia often. We can try to publish stories about how Estonians are a hospitable people, but as long as we cannot ensure that our tourists don't get mugged on the streets of the Old Town and aren't robbed of their personal belongings, all these attempts will not work.
Of course, it would be far to say that in many cases tourists themselves have done nothing to prevent problems. In many cases the victims have been enjoying themselves, drinking and losing vigilance. But in spite of that, tourists have every right to expect that their wealth and health will not be jeopardized during their stay in Estonia.
A second weakness in the opinion of many tourists is poverty - i.e., the omnipresent beggars and homeless people on city streets. For people arriving from the welfare states of Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Norway, this is a very unusual picture.
And let's be frank: when you walk around Riga Old Town you don't seem to come across as many disadvantaged people as in Tallinn.
The third big minus for Estonia was bad traffic and transportation culture, including bad or missing road signs, potholes in the streets and poor public transport. Here the criticism is targeted at the city government.
All the problems outlined above can be summed up by saying that tourists find it difficult to move about in Estonia. Put yourself in the same position - to have to find a place on public transportation in a town that you don't know - and it is clear that this is a viable concern.
In sum, one can say that while Estonia's image among tourists is not the best possible, it is also not the worst. As usual, we are somewhere in between. What is most important is that foreigners see us as a rapidly developing country and believe in our capability in developing ourselves. To say nothing of the fact that two out of three respondents said that a "yes" at the EU accession referendum has notably increased the reputation of Estonia abroad.
This article first appeared in Eesti Paevaleht.