TALLINN - Baltic nations are losing their novelty appeal for international travelers, but according to one expert on inbound tourism, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
“The novelty factor has definitely worn off,” says Neil Taylor, tour group operator and author of several Baltic travel guides.
“People are coming here for a conventional European holiday, not an adventure.”
When the borders first fell open, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were viewed as prime destinations for adventurous discovery seekers. But according to Taylor – who first visited in 1992 – “There never really was an adventure.”
“It became nice so quickly. People were pleasantly surprised at how Western much of it was.”
Over time the tourism demographic has shifted to reflect this, with more elderly people and tour groups stopping in.
“The type of traveler visiting here is broadening. The stags will come and go, but apart from them more younger people and backpackers are coming. They travel individually, not in tour groups, and they do things more casually.
“And now there are more of the very elderly, who feel it is now a safe place to come. They are always the last people to come to a new destination. Now it is clear there is no need for adventure, and there is a good range of three and four star hotels, which is what they require.”
Although the novelty appeal has diminished, Taylor now predicts a more steady flow of tourists as the Baltics gain a reputation as a stable and reputable destination.
The recent visits of world dignitaries have helped boost the region’s profile, and it seems each week a different British magazine or newspaper dispatches travel writers to dredge up cliches about Tallinn’s chocolate box Old Town, Riga’s raunchy night life and Vilnius’s Frank Zappa statue.
Things started to look unstable following Estonia’s Bronze Soldier riots, but Taylor believes the subsequent visit by David Beckham and the English football team helped restore confidence.
“Every time these nations are mentioned in the British press, more visitors are likely to come. And all the mentions are positive. There was not much news about the Bronze Soldier here, so many Brits would be unaware that it happened. There is constantly good publicity,” Taylor says.
If any city cops bad press, it’s Riga. However Taylor believes Riga’s reputation for unscrupulous bar pricing and stag party debauchery is undeserved.
“Stags may be a small nuisance, but I doubt that the reputation can be backed up. There may be some incidents, but the situation is far from dire. People who are ripped off usually ask for it. You can’t blame Riga for everything, sometimes you have to blame the client. The only stories you hear occur in the very early hours of the morning, when 95 percent of visitors are in bed.”
Along with a shift in tourist demographic has come a change in the way tourists visit the Baltics.
“All through the 90s people saw the Baltics as one country with three provinces. Now they are seeing the countries individually. I suppose a lot of people still do the old [Soviet-era] Intourist itinerary – three nights between Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn. But many are now breaking out of the capitals. They are discovering lovely destinations such as Tartu, Saaremaa, Kaunas and Liepaja. There are new hotels and direct links to western Europe from outside the capitals.”
Official visitor figures show the numbers are beginning to stabilize. Last year Tallinn experienced a 7.5 percent increase in tourist spending, while the overall number of visitors decreased by 3 percent. While figures are expected to fluctuate over time, one thing is clear – the Baltics are no longer off the beaten track.