TALLINN (AFP) - Estonia is bracing for an influx of Russian tourists, expected in their thousands to usher in the new year at the capital of the former Soviet republic in a climate of nostalgia and a warm Baltic welcome.
"We're fully sold out for New Year's Eve," said Jaanika Peeba, marketing manager for the Grand Hotel Tallinn. "We've been sold out for the end of the year since the autumn -- and its's all customers from Russia."
Tourism officials have predicted that up to 20,000 Russians will pour into Tallinn for festivities starting this weekend to mark the new year and Russian Christmas, which culminates on January 7. That's twice as many people as there are hotel beds in the picturesque coastal city with a medieval old town.
To cater to their clientele from their giant eastern neighbour, hotels in Tallinn will see in the new year twice : first, when the clock ticks past midnight in Moscow and then an hour later when the same happens in the Baltics.
There will be Russian-language New Year's parties in most of the big hotels and restaurants in the Estonian capital to make the visitors feel even more at home in Tallinn, once a jewel in the crown of the so-called Soviet West.
"Russian tourists like it here for the New Year," says Kersti Kont of the Estonian Association of Travel Agents.
"For them, it's like being abroad and being at home at the same time. People here can speak Russian, and many Russian visitors have fond memories of their travels to Estonia in Soviet times, when they experienced life here which was different to life in Russia."
This season, the city of Tallinn expects a 25-percent increase in numbers of tourists from Russia, following a campaign to attract Russian visitors and their rubles to .....
..... the new European Union member state.
"Our campaign in Moscow and St Petersburg, called the Winter Fairy Tale in Old Tallinn, was aimed at helping Russians rediscover Estonia after the break-up of the Soviet Union," said Evelin Tsirk, head of the Tallinn Tourism Department.
"Russians can get Europe here at an affordable price," said Kont of the Association of Travel Agents.
"Some Russians like travelling in the lap of luxury, which they can get here," she said.
"Those who don't want to spend too much find the prices here much more affordable than in Moscow or Western Europe -- and they can still say they've been abroad."
Russian-language tour guides, who take a back seat to their Nordic-language colleagues in the summer months, are in high demand now as extra city tours are laid on for festive season visitors from Russia.
More Russian is spoken now in the medieval Hanseatic heart of Tallinn, adorned with Christmas trees, colourful lights and enticingly designed shop windows, than in the 15 years since Estonia regained independence from the Soviet Union.
Estonia and the other two Baltic states of Latvia and Lithuania were annexed by Stalin's Soviet Union at the close of World War II, only becoming independent again in 1991.
Walking out of the brightly lit Viru Centre, a newly completed shopping arcade near many big Tallinn hotels, 51-year-old Natalya Svidlova from St Petersburg was on her first visit to Estonia since the Soviet Union crumbled in 1991.
"I liked it very much here when I used to visit in Soviet times, and now I decided to come back," she said, her arms laden with Christmas shopping. "It has changed an awful lot, but I still feel at home because I remember so much. And, after all, it's so close!"