Since gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the Baltic state of Estonia has rapidly accelerated its digital agenda, transforming into a unique business and cultural hub.
THE BUSINESS END
Estonia’s economy has opened up enormously since the early 1990s, so much so it is often cited as one of the most liberal in Europe. Government-controlled enterprise has gradually been handed over to private competition, while industry and agriculture account for a declining proportion of GDP with services assuming a more important role. The country has a balanced national budget, flat rate of income tax and very few customs tariffs.
Tourism trade in Estonia is booming. In 2017 more foreign tourists visited the country than in any previous years. With 3.5 million domestic and international tourists staying in Estonian accommodation. This marks an impressive increase of seven percent on 2016, and taking into account single day visitors, some six million tourists arrived in what was a record-breaking year on many levels.
In 2017, there were 1,500 accommodation establishments in Estonia, with 25,000 rooms and 62,000 beds. This is 700 more rooms and 2,000 more beds for visitors compared to 2016. All of this equates into 2017 tourism revenue of €1.9 billion, the vast majority coming from foreign visitors. Major tourism markets include neighbouring Baltic states and Russia. Rapid growth in Asian visitors is another promising trend for Estonian tourism.
TOURISM INSIGHTS: ESTONIAN CONVENTION BUREAU
The Estonian Convention Bureau (ECB) was established in 2008 as a joint initiative of the main suppliers of the meetings industry in Estonia, together with the main conference cities Tallinn and Tartu and the Estonian Tourist Board.
“Our bureau is a great example of a PPP CVB model and a success story of private and public sector cooperation in Estonia,” says Kadri Karu, the organisation’s Managing Director. “We have 30 partners from different areas of the meetings sector who have joined forces and budgets to market Estonia as a meeting destination and attract international conferences to our country.”
Karu went on to answer our questions about the bureau and the wider tourism scene across the country.
Q&A WITH KADRI KARU, MANAGING DIRECTOR, ECB
Since inception, how has the Estonian Convention Bureau developed and progressed in terms of its key objectives and the messages it tries to get across?
Kadri Karu (KK): Since the beginning of the bureau we have been a marketing organisation on one hand but also an umbrella organisation on the other. When we started back in 2008 our main goal was to put Estonia on the international map as meetings destination and gauge an understanding of what kind of conferences take place here. “We were completely unknown and any specialised marketing tools or statistics did not exist. We have come a long way since, hosting more than 500 international conferences annually and holding 45th position in ICCA rankings for association meetings. Knowledge about Estonia has grown enormously! Nowadays our messages are not about where we are and who we are, but more on actual products, experiences and reasons to choose Estonia for one’s next meeting.
How would you say Estonia has developed in recent years as a business travel/MICE hub and what are the key reasons behind its growing appeal?
(KK): Over the last few years there has been a significant increase in new infrastructure – both hotels and unique venues that can host bigger international conferences and corporate events. They offer extremely great value for money – facilities that are brand new and modern come at prices that do not break your budget. Also, the accessibility by air is constantly improving with more and more direct routes to Tallinn and better frequencies. Our specialists and scientists have become increasingly active in taking the initiative of bidding and hosting scientific and industry events in Estonia. We see that both international associations and corporate incentive events are constantly looking for new, fresh destinations that are at the same time affordable, close and safe.
Why, in your opinion, should someone visit Estonia?
(KK): Estonia combines a uniquely medieval history and closeness to nature with modern tech. Estonia is often referred to as E-estonia because of all the digital solutions we have, especially in the public sector. That background brings a lot of IT related events to Estonia, from software development to cybersecurity and artificial intelligence. In February 2019 a new E-estonia showroom opens where it is possible to learn about the Estonian digital success story. In addition to that Estonia has a rich cultural and historical heritage to explore. For events and business travellers there are also interesting incentive and teambuilding activities available. Estonia is a “less travelled route” where one can experience something new in a unique setting. Therefore, we have also chosen “Go Wild – Choose Estonia!” as the title of our 2019 marketing activities.
Are there any specific attractions, landmarks or places to eat and drink that you would recommend?
(KK): UNESCO-listed, fairy tale-like Tallinn Old is definitely one of the main attractions. This medieval heart of the town is surrounded by the former factory districts of Telliskivi and Rotermanni that have become the design and culinary hubs of the city, one in a bohemian and the other in a more business-like way. Estonian Maritime Museum Seaplane Harbour is a must-go place in Tallinn that is truly unique in the world. It is also worth going outside of the capital to University Town Tartu and the Estonian National Museum, spa resort town Pärnu that offers a great range of outdoor activities, and the wetland areas and manor houses on the northern coast. What is special in Estonia is that you can easily privatise a unique location – having a meeting on board of an old ice breaker boat or in a boiler room of a former electricity factory or medieval Town Hall are just few options to mention.
What trends are transforming the tourism industry in Estonia at present? How are you responding to these trends?
(KK): Estonia is still very lucky to be untouched by the worldwide overtourism trend and we are aiming to keep it that way. To offer more and better solutions for business visitors and international events we work closely together within the meetings industry sector and have created the Team Estonia concept to demonstrate our cooperation. That helps us to exchange information within the sector, do marketing activities with a unified voice and also work closely together when delivering the events in Estonia.
How do you see Estonia developing as a business travel hub over the next year to two years?
(KK): ECB lobbying has guaranteed that since 2018 the growth of the meetings industry and conference tourism is one of the main priorities for the Estonian Tourist Board and the Estonian Ministry of Economic Affairs. I believe having that clear goal will be the main driver for the constant development of business travel. We want to be visible in the world and attract interest thanks to us being a knowledge hub for many industries as well as a unique destination.
Are there any plans or projects in the pipeline that you wish to highlight?
(KK): A congress centre development project has been agreed between the national government and municipality of Tallinn. It will be a centrally located venue in Tallinn with a main plenary hall for up to 2,500 delegates and a number of smaller halls and a concert hall for up to 3,500 delegates. The project has started and we hope that this new location will be open by 2024/2025. Also, there are some new hotels and venues/attractions opening over the next year or two both in Tallinn and elsewhere in the country.
Are you optimistic about the future of the tourism industry in Estonia?
(KK): Absloutely! These are interesting times for developing a more targeted, clever and sustainable tourism industry and growing the business segment in Estonia. We have very good potential and thanks to great partnerships and cooperation within the destination I am very optimistic that we will put Estonia onto every business traveller’s bucket list.
OUT AND ABOUT
Tallinn has been raved about in recent years and for good reason. Its Old Town is listed by UNESCO and one of Europe’s most complete walled cities, giving it the fairy-tale charm that Karu mentions. Away from the Old Town, Telliskivi Creative City – the artistic hub of Tallinn – showcases what can be done with decaying buildings from bygone eras. Restored and transformed, they now house art galleries, shops, entertainment venues and bars.
Estonia’s food scene is also vibrant, with cuisines from all over the world amply represented in Tallinn, while many highly-rated restaurants can be found in the likes of Pärnu, Tartu, Otepää and large manor houses in the countryside. It is here where many nature reserves and national parks offer unrivalled opportunities to spot wildlife, especially bird migrations in the spring months. In Matsalu National Park, for example, some 280 different species can be spotted on well-organised tours. Perhaps surprising to some is the fact that Estonia is made up of more than 1,500 islands off of its main landmass. The biggest such island, Saaremaa, is home to the spectacular and popular Kuressaare Castle, the best-preserved of its kind in the Baltic.
GETTING THERE AND AROUND
Nearly 20 European airlines provide services to Tallinn all year round, with extra routes added in the busier summer months. Another easy way into the country from other Baltic states is by boat, with services running from Tallinn to Helsinki, St Petersburg, Mariehamn and Stockholm.
Karu adds: “In Estonia it is possible to experience the different sides of the destination in a short period of time as the country and cities are small. We are truly a boutique destination where everything is close. Tallinn Airport is located only four kilometres from the city centre and there is a convenient tram and taxi connection to town. In the city centre the hotels, locations and attractions are within five to 15 minutes walking distance and there is a convenient public transport network. Secondary cities and nature areas are easily reachable by bus. It takes only 30 minutes from Tallinn city centre to a beautiful forest reserve area and bog trails in Lahemaa National Park.”
Cycling is another viable option for local travel, as Estonia is one of the flatter landmasses on the continent, while roads are generally easy to navigate as Estonians are considered to be safe drivers who respect speed limits.