Many Estonians heading for warmer climes to weather coronavirus storm ({{contentCtrl.commentsTotal}})

A Thai beach in Phuket.
A Thai beach in Phuket. Source: ERR

While hundreds of Estonians were rushing home following the declaration of an emergency situation and border controls imposed across EU countries, some traveled in the opposite direction and decided to weather the crisis in sunnier climes. The state views these last minute leavers are irresponsible, however, according to a report on magazine show "Pealtnägija" Wednesday night.

Thailand a popular destination

One of these, Andres Vink, 42, in fact was already in Thailand where he has permanent residence, and decided not to return to Estonia ahead of travel restrictions coming into place.

"I think Thailand is safer right now," Vink, who travels round Thailand and is involved in Estonian expat life there, said.

"But with the qualification that the future will tell. I don't have any major outgoings, but I think I would be here now in any case if I had a family and had to choose between Thailand or Lasnamäe – where every morning I take the bus to work or go to the standard grocery store. I would be here anyway. But yes, many others don't have that opportunity, "Vink said.

Vink added that around 100 coronavirus "refugees" from Estonia had arrived in the region in the past week-and-a-half.

One of these is Triin Pikhoff, a 23-year-old working in the service industry who left for a solo tour on March 11, days before the emergency situation was declared, and has now decided to postpone her return home for an indefinite period.

"I don't want to give it up, and the situation didn't frustrate me very much. If there's a pool where you can swim, this is not crazy," Pikhoff reasoned.

"It is really cheaper for me to live here, because nowadays there is just this coronavirus, people are not moving, they are not here. Food prices are just very low. Everything is much cheaper," she said, adding that the country was one of the last to impose travel restrictions and had something of an existing Estonian community there.

Prohibitively expensive to return home now

Pikhoff said she had also communicated directly with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and was urged to return home immediately, but this seemed paradoxical because returning was already so expensive by that time.

"If I had to take the tickets back then, even if there had been any, then the cheapest ticket was €600, then the next available ticket via Finnair cost €1,600, that kind of a stunt," she said.

"Those people who have deliberately chosen to stay here for a few months or a few weeks weeks - depending on how long this mess lasts – they aren't being irresponsible; on the contrary, it's responsible that you would rather just avoid from the crisis and then come to this scattered settlement," said Andres Vink.

Thailand is nonetheless starting to see restrictions too. It has reportedly announced closures of its massage parlors, outdoor gyms, bars and nightclubs nationwide. In addition, there are now severe restrictions on entry, although the official numbers of sufferers is still relatively small (Thailand has a reported 1,045 cases at the time of writing, out of a population of nearly 70 million, and has had four deaths-ed.)

This may not paint the full picture, however, said another emigree Estonian.

"After 20 years of keeping up with Thailand's life, I believe there may be a situation here where they just don't publish all the numbers," said long-term resident Andreas Lukin.

Officials and aviation experts say that even in the best case scenario, if the crisis is overcome quickly enough in Estonia, airline connections will certainly not return to their previous level overnight. It is also unpredictable how expensive flying will be after the crisis. 

"I think these people will still get home if they want. And if they really want to, they'll find a way, because not all planes have stopped flying," Vink said.

Business and family behind others' decision to travel

Others appearing on the show included Aljona, who decided to go to the Netherlands since she had family there, was a school student and would still get lessons remotedly (Estonian schools are closed-ed.) and would be there a month.

Business was the reason Eero booked a 180-seat flight to Malta, with just four other passengers on board.

"I have a business there and then I got the message yesterday that the borders would be closed there, so I changed my flight to today," he said, confirming that he was ready to quarantine in Malta for 14 days.

Andreas said he planned to fly to the U.K. because he has three businesses in the city of Oxford. 

"Essentially I should go back. But it's an uncertain time. I'm not sure if I have a business to go back to. I have a wife and a five-year-old son. I'm very worried about getting sick. We have been put in self-quarantine," he said.

Alari also flew to Phuket via Istanbul on a pay-as-you-go vacation, spurred on by the fact that he had met a foreign bride in Thailand. He makes money playing cards online, he said, and can do it from there.

"In January, Asia seemed to be in very bad shape, but now I've decided that Europe seems to be worse, so it was perfectly fine to go on a trip," he explained.

Alari didn't want to give his full name because he, like many other departees, understands that it is badly viewed at home. 

"'Debiilik' ('moron'-ed.) was the harshest word I heard, but some were pleasanter. Most people thought it wasn't a super-smart idea, but I personally didn't think it was that crazy. Now it seems even less so. Hotels are fully booked here," he said.

Other coronavirus "refugees" declined an interview with the show.

Ministry's view: Returning from abroad is becoming increasingly difficult

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which stood accused of failing to bring people home quickly enough as the crisis developed, has condemned the leaving. 

Foreign Ministry Secretary General Rainer Saks said that it would now be increasingly difficult to bring Estonians abroad to return, particularly given the size of the country.

"It is my deep recommendation as of now that I ask you not to leave Estonia anymore, because it will take an enormous amount of effort in bringing you back afterwards, and is becoming increasingly difficult," Saks said.

"The problem is not so much the opinion of the people in condemning something, but that people do not realize that in the current situation, flights are simply physically interrupted. Now is the last week of the last few scheduled flights that are still in operation; starting next week, the only way is for a large country to arrange a charter trip, especially from a long distance. That should be possible. But these will also come to an end. Then there will be a period where movement is essentially impossible," Saks went on.

Riivo Tuvike, board chair at Tallinn Airport, added his voice the ministry's appeal. 

"Our advice is definitely to stay at home. The situation may change at any moment. There are flights at present, but this can change by the hour, so the call is for people to stay at home. ../ Certainly it is better to be in quarantine at home than anywhere else," he added.

Tallinn Airport itself is only seeing around 10 percent of its pre-crisis throughflow, at around 16 landings/takeoffs and only a handful of departing passengers.

"There are still those who want to return home, but also those who just want to get out of the house. /.../ Primarily, I think those who fly out are foreigners," Tuvike added, noting that a mass exodus of Estonians had not been noted.

Editor: Andrew Whyte

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