The Door to the Baltic Sea

Riina Lohmus, Director of Estonian Tourist Board

Interview with

Riina Lõhmus,

April 4th, 2000
Could you give us the mission of the Tourist Board, what its main objectives are?

The Estonian Tourist Board has a similar structure as the other European tourist boards. We are a small country which means the sector is very fragile. It is multidisciplinary and mostly coordinating tourism in the country. It offers public service for the travel trade, hotels, and different sectors of tourism. Our missions are visible and clear just analysing the Estonian Tourist Board structure. Basically, we do research as every tourist board does. The product development and quality control belong to another department. We have a marketing department and 20 tourist information centres around Estonia, where the finances and the arrangements are working in combination with the local government. But we have always one person who is the staff member. And if it sounds like a huge organisation, each department has max 2 to 3 people, which all together represent 48 people in the whole of Estonia but as our country has only 1.5 million inhabitants, it is definitely enough.

Could you tell us exactly how the Tourist Board is structured? What are doing the different departments exactly?

We report to the Ministry of Economic Affairs. We are a public office headed by a General Director. We have two Vice directors, on the marketing as well as on the developing side. The developing side because we are still developing our economy and consolidating it. During the start of regaining independence much has been done, starting to do some research but also categorising the accomodation sector as well as the rest. This is a work that most of Europe has done already but we are currently doing it. For the development side there is the product development department, information technology and information centres together with 3 regional offices. There is one person who takes care of the information centres because it represents a huge amount of work, even if we have all Internet and e-mail connections. We are now building the information system. But still it's important that people are present because our web-site content has to be accurate - it's important for the image of Estonia, and it has been proved that it is actually. Then there is marketing which has been put together with the research. The marketing department has 3 people who have divided the world into 3 parts. The main source market is North Europe and Scandinavia and we have a specialist for that. Then there is our big neighbour, Russia together with Ukraine. And finally, the rest of the world. Western Europe is the main source market for us. We have defined very clearly the priorities. We can't be compared to Greece or Italy who have dozens of offices abroad. We have one office abroad, which is based in Helsinki. We belong to the Baltic Sea Tourism Commission and the European Travel Commission which are the umbrella marketing organisations for the Baltic region as well as for the whole of Europe. As we are a small country with quite limited resources, it is always good to promote ourselves among the bigger regions. We do more Scandinavia, Latvia, Russia - around us and Europe as it is our main market.

How close do you work with the different Estonian embassies around the world?

Very close. In the case of a small country it is the main alternative: to efficiently cooperate. We have active support from the Foreign Ministry presentations everywhere in the world. I think that they do more for tourism that they should but it is a question of representing Estonia. We cooperate in many ways. When we started, we were just sending materials but now we work with the press and when we go to the trade fairs in Europe then,we always try to get a feedback on how the fair has gone and what are the new trends. I think it is a good cooperation.

The Tourist Board is not more than 10 years old, can you tell us about the big developments and projects that you have accomplished over the past few years.

I haven't been in the Tourist Board for 10 years, I joined in the end of 1995. I came as the Marketing manager. We started by revising our image together with the EU. We created some brochures and prioritised where to go and how we will reach their market. In the marketing area, the start has been more initiated and the guidelines gave the experience from the consultancy with the EU. We were lucky to have people and we are now realising how to deal with their market. It is a big achievement. Another big development was the research we started to do on tourism in 1993, in cooperation with the Estonian Bank and Border officials. If we speak about the 10 years term, it was important that the state give licenses to travel agencies, and operators were introduced. It was on the basis of the EU package law that every kind of tourism corresponds to the expectations of the tourist. In 1997 the Government financed the information network. Every country started with the network. When it started nobody even understood how important it was. We have quite well trained and homogeneous this system. I think this is a good spot to go on with this development putting more real time online Estonia, we don't have it yet. We are very lucky that we have this information system and the quality standards are developing simultaneously. I think it will take a couple of years to set up Estonia in a sellable way on the Internet.

How many tourists did you have here in 1999? How does this compare to the previous years?

We had over 3 million foreign visitors and a third of them were tourists who stayed over night. The problem is that we have too many one-day visitors. We had over 100.000 cruise passengers. Tallinn was the second biggest receiver of cruise ships last year in Europe. Germany, Spain, USA, Italy - they are most of the tourist passengers. This is good in many ways because it's also good advertising. We did a cruise passenger survey 3 years ago and the results showed passengers were very satisfied with the visit. They didn't know much about where they were going but found that Tallinn was a very interesting city among other Scandinavian cities. I hope some investments in the infrastructure in ports will be done in order to make it more pleasant. 2 million people comprimise one-day visitors only. The trend in 1999 was good because the increase in all visitors was 9%. In overnight visitors the increase was 15%. So regarding the missions that we have, I think that it is mainly increasing tourism. We have the room to do it. We would like to increase the revenue so that we could extend their stay in Estonia. This is the main thing that the Estonian Tourist Board is trying to develop. We have to look further and develop the regional tourism. It is important for Estonia because most of the tourism is concentrated in Tallinn and the western coast where Pärnu is the second most attractive city. So they go to the West, to the Islands. We are happy that the tourists have also discovered South Estonia, because they can do active holidays there. We hope that if we are good in product development, as Estonia is very loosely inhabited, that there is not too much concentration of tourism in one place.

What would you say that Estonia got to offer to the tourists apart from Tallinn?

Estonia has actually a lot more to offer. Until now, the offers were depending on visitors. We have mostly Scandinavians and Europeans. They come to Tallinn because it is a medieval city and has good opportunities for short visits. Scandinavian tourists are very conscious about the environment. Estonia, in that sense, has great areas of national parks, and numerous animal varieties. Much of our landscape was closed to construction when part of Soviet Union and now this is a huge resource for tourism. There are facilities developed for active holidays but not enough yet, especially if you are looking at the number of camp sites and motels, but it is improving every year. Instead of a city break this is definitely a round trip where you can be active. We don't have big sites, our mountain is just 300 m high. So it is just to have a relaxed holiday with good contact with nature and culture. We have islands where everyday life national costumes are used and they still use ancient household tools. The survey we realised showed that tourists were amazed, not as if it was an amusement park but as a real way of living.

What role does the Tourist Board play in preserving nature and maintaining the ecological balance?

Estonians have always liked to be more by themselves and to get strengh not from the church but from the woods. We are natural, maybe not like Norwegians but people are still rural as we are only the third generation in the city. Here it is not difficult to preserve, everyone understands, even opposite - they say why we need the tourism. People understand quite well that we should grow the tax and create the roads for tourism. Therefore, tourists can be with us and visit the country without damaging the environment.
Would you say this would encourage the national tourism as well?

Yes. I would compare it with Lithuania or Russia where I've been. Our cooperation with national parks in the product development regarding what we can do or what they can do to promote is very natural and mutual cooperation.

What does tourism represent to Estonia in terms of money and GDP?

Over 10 billion EEK, which is 15% GDP. That is quite high. But this is together with the secondary effect, it means that how we count, we calculate on the model brought to us by Irish Consultancy. If you have heard what tourism organisations presented in the United Nations this is actually the count method to measure the impact of tourism, we don't use it yet. Some countries use the same method so that it's comparable to the others. There are also discussions about the fact the GDP is lower in statistics. We always use the 15% as a basis. 18% of the export of services and 16% of workforce. For example having small islands like Kihnu with very few people, the services volume increase 5 times thanks to the tourism, it creates many new jobs. The 16% of workforce is all together with seasonal work.

What kind of facilities would you say are available for tourism in Tallinn with regards to entertainment, hotels and all kind of tourism facilities?

The level of hotels has changed in 10 years. When Estonia was part of Soviet Union the Soviet tourism agency Inturist showed Tallinn to the foreigners as a Soviet Western country. That means that we inherited some of the hotels from this time, the Viru and Olümpia. Of course they have been renovated completely, the management has changed and there have been many investments into the hotels. There are some small hotels in the buildings of the Old Town. Recently there has been the hotel change, the Grand Hotel Mercure opened last year and SAS Radisson is coming soon. Scandic, the Scandinavian group, has brought some of the hotels here. Reval Hotel Group is local based, also going on to Latvia. Now we can say that we have quite a lot in Tallinn. There is an increase in 2 and 3 stars hotels. There is a bigger need for simpler conditions because Scandinavian tourists come over with their families. There are some hostels in Tallinn. The British Travel Agency says that in Estonia now we have also a good quality level conditions in Pärnu and Tartu, South Estonia. What we don't have enough yet is the camp sites and motels. That is now the new wave and we try to categorise them and teach them how to do business and how to offer their services out of the farm-house. This is a specific kind of tourism.

With regards to the training people, to what extend have you been actively training the local population of Estonia to be better prepared and to accept tourists more openly?

The Tourist Board doesn't give the basic education. It's done by the hotel schools, there are some private schools. We have the task to do the consulting. First, you can imagine that if some new rules come out, Estonians think that it could be measures that could depress their initiative as well as to make everything look very Euro Standards. Therefore, they believe it could make them loose their originality. The only cure for them is that we consult or we go out and meet.

You target specific markets for tourism. Can you tell me more about how you promote Estonia?

We picked 5 priority markets for different reasons. Now the main market is Finland. There is still a lot of potential for increase in Russia and also Sweden. These are our 3 main markets where we have planned and done most of our promotional activities. But of course we don't exclude let say Denmark, Norway etc but this is another story. Our 5 priorities are Finland, Sweden, Russia. And then we have Germany, which is the big resource market for all tourism in Europe. For every country it is a priority market as Germans are travelling a lot. And, finally we have Britain. We actually made a sort of investigation and research and found out that British companies influence quite a lot the travel decisions in Scandinavian countries through their business connections. They would enjoy this kind of product. They are well travelled, educated and interested. We have quite good increase in Britain. We got the 2 major travel fairs in our priority countries, international travel fairs, for example London Travel Market, Berlin, Moscow Mit, Helsinki Matka, Göteborg Tour - they are the biggest of their countries. But we do other things too in these countries. We go to the second best travel fairs, for example St. Petersburg, Turku. In every priority market we arrange each year the visit of journalists. We work with the press.

We go out with a team to international fairs. In the smaller places we usually go by ourselves to represent the whole country and 1 or 2 companies who are interested to join.

What are the opportunities for any foreign investor who would like to come and invest in the tourism sector?

Two years ago, we prepared a special booklet for tourism investors. We have already seen that quite a lot of foreign investments have come to the sector. Estonian Air is the foreign investment from Maersk Air. It's quite good for us to have good connections, cooperations and access. The competition especially in transit Tallinn line is very tough. There are investment opportunities in old Germans manor houses which can be renovated and converted. There are 600 in Estonia. This is the place where it could be attractive for foreign investors, but it is a huge investment. This is one of the areas. If you go around in Tallinn you will notice the numerous restaurants where you can have all kind of meals. Investments have been done. It's like in any other country.

What are your projects for the future? How do you see the Estonian tourism industry in the years to come?

I think that Estonia will be more integrated to Scandinavia or the Baltic Sea region. We can't develop differently. This is not so bad mark in this sense because all this tourism is high quality, on a historical, cultural, natural basis. I think that now when the tourists come, especially the American tourists, they say that price levels here are lower than expected. I hope we are not a low market, and that we will not be a very cheap tourist country, but we really offer good value for money. We will never be the real mass tourism, except Tallinn because of its connections to Sweden. I hope there will be more connections from St. Petersburg to Riga, that it will get more open. If there were having a port, a small port of yachts for example, in Saaremaa or in North West coast, it could bring more people as the access through sea bring more tourists. The whole Estonian countryside still remains seasonal, it will not be a 12-month a year business. We have quite a healthy cultural life, it means that all events here bring people together and the nature and the opportunity to move around. When we analysed what was bringing the Western Europe tourists here, we realised they were simply looking to have a nice time, and relax far away from the very busy Europe.

What would be your final message to Forbes Global readers?

I think that usually journalists are better for that. Many of them said " Come here before it's too late ". Not that this is a secret place. In Britain for example they say that Estonia has a certain pure romantic atmospheer to discover and still brings natural romantic feelings. I think it makes sense: Don't wait too long.

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© World INvestment NEws, 2000.
This is the electronic edition of the special country report on Estonia published in Forbes Global Magazine.

September 18th 2000 Issue.

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