Tallinn aims to gain staying power

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TALLINN, Estonia -- This picture postcard-perfect capital city on the Baltic Sea may boast what locals claim is the best-preserved medieval center in northern Europe, but it's anything but frozen in time.

While a recent sightseeing visit convinced this reporter of Tallinn's right to tout its credentials as the top of the Middle Ages heap, new developments in its still-burgeoning tourism industry confirmed that the Estonian capital -- liberated from Communism just a dozen years ago -- has embraced modern capitalism with a vengeance.

Tallying up Tallinn

It's not only that this tiny Baltic nation is experiencing a business boom thanks to freewheeling, Yankee-style economics, as my tour guide ruefully pointed out, or that prices in the souvenir shops on scenic Toompea Hill -- where a disposable camera can set you back $25 -- out-price-gouge similar New York or London outfits by a mile.

It's also the emergence of world-class overnight options in historic structures- such as the hip new Three Sisters Hotel, a 23-room Design Hotels affiliate housed in three 14th century rowhouses -- and "touristy," but high-quality and fun, themed restaurants such as Olde Hansa, a rollicking medieval dining experience at 1 Vana Turg, near the Town Hall.

Tallinn sightseeing spots such as the medieval walls and St. Olaf's Church, above, received 5% more visitors in 2003. Although I normally cringe at Renaissance fairs, medieval restaurants and the like back home, Olde Hansa's tasty renaissance "fare"; friendly, camp service; and authentic setting won me over.

Thus, the city's tourism infrastructure -- and hotel, retail and restaurant plant -- finally is maturing and catching up in quality with the scenic glories of its ancient fortifications; towering churches; cozy, cobblestone lanes; and forests of thin, stone clocktowers and steeples, unique in northern Europe.

Day by day, Tallinn -- which, although ethnically tied to nearby Finland, more closely resembles an old Hanseatic port of Germany -- grows better able to stand on its own, as a stand-alone destination, rather than a mere day-trip port of call for Baltic cruise passengers or fast-ferry visitors from Helsinki.

Local entrepreneurs even launched a tricycle "velotaxi," service, similar to such ventures in Copenhagen, Berlin and other European tourism meccas; the $2, rickshaw-like ride is a fun option for getting from the Old Town to ferries at the port.

For more information, see www.velotakso.ee online.

Overnighting inn style

In fact, the city -- which saw visitor arrivals jump 5% in 2003 -- added 256 beds to its accommodations inventory, which now comprises 199 establishments with 8,091 guest beds.

Among new hotel entrants is the four-star, 350-room Hotel Tallink, a Best Western-affiliated property that opened in the city center last month; the 113-room, music-themed Saku Rock Hotel, a budget, port-side property opening this month with rates ranging from $70 to $80 per night; and the three-star, 132-room Ulemiste Hotel, due to open at Tallinn Airport in July.

Armed with first-class accommodations, eateries and attractions, the Tallinn City Tourist Office and Convention Bureau is hoping to convert day-trippers -- who accounted for 67% of 2.7 million visitors in 2003 -- and cruise ship and ferry passengers -- some 82% of arrivals -- into repeat, overnight guests returning for land-based city stays, now comprising only a third of the city's clientele.

But Tallinn marketing manager Helena Tsistova said her cash-strapped office -- as is the case at Estonia's national tourist board -- can't really afford overseas promotion, especially in the U.S., "so what we try to do is supply cruise lines with our [promotional] materials."

"There's not much else we can do, other than just hope Tallinn is attractive enough to make them want to return on their own," she added.

In the long run, Tsistova and her colleagues would like to reposition Tallinn from a day-trip stop to a base for tourists on regional tours that combine the city with St. Petersburg, Russia; Riga, Latvia; and Helsinki.

In 2003, the U.S. was the third-largest source market of same-day visitors to Tallinn, accounting for 63,992 tourists; according to the city tourist office, American visits are on the rise.

Price hike in the cards

Many of those U.S. and other day-trippers took advantage of the discount Tallinn Card program, similar to visitor pass efforts across the Continent.

Two years ago, a short-term, six-hour card was introduced -- and it's proved a tremendous success, said Tsistova.

"It's popular with cruise visitors, who tend to spend exactly that amount of time in town," she explained, adding the six-hour version offers all benefits of longer-term cards except the free, guided city tour.

But on April 1 -- coincidentally, just one month before Estonia entered the European Union -- Tallinn Card prices rose some 29.4%.

The rate hike addressed increases in printing and service costs, according to the city tourist office; on the bright side, the Tallinn Card now offers up to 80 free and discounted offers in museums, shops, restaurants and entertainment venues.

Tallinn Cards are priced as follows: six hours, adults $7, kids $3.50; 24 hours, adults $20, kids $10; 48 hours, adults $24, kids $12; and 72 hours, adults $27.50, kids $13.75.

Tallinn Card holders get free entrance to the newly renovated Town Hall, which celebrates its 600th anniversary this summer.

The Tallinn Town Hall museum is now open from Mondays to Saturdays, July 1 through Aug. 31, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

For more information on Tallinn and Estonia, contact Amest Travel in New York at (212) 972-2217, [email protected] or www.amest.com or visit the Tallinn City Tourist Office and Convention Bureau online at www.tourism.tallinn.ee.

To contact reporter Kenneth Kiesnoski, send e-mail to [email protected].

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