Saaremaa's harbor had attracted a record-setting 14 ships when the cruise season closed last week, surely a relief after the bad press in 2012, when only three ships docked.
Last year, skeptics questioned whether the harbor was a feasible investment. The government had paid out 12.7 million euros to build the harbor in 2006, hoping to turn the sparsely populated summertime destination beloved by Estonians into an alternative landing place for cruise ships, which mostly head to Tallinn when stopping by Estonia.
This year, the Port of Tallinn, which owns the harbor, nearly doubled its previous cruise ship record and drew in 6,456 tourists. For next year, the state-owned company has booked 10 cruise ships with a total of 7,000 passengers.
But that still falls short of the 40 cruise ships per year experts had hoped for when the harbor was built. Just two years later, in 2008, the Port of Tallinn and its tourism partners on Saaremaa signed a statement of mutual intent, aiming to reach 20 ships per year by 2015.
Although the harbor was built foremost for cruise ships, there are plans to also open it to cargo shipping, a move some locals have protested.
A company representative, who attributed this year's growth to marketing efforts, told ERR News that the Saaremaa must compete with 10 countries and over 30 cruise ship destinations (including Tallinn) in the Baltic Sea (though most ships stop on average at seven destinations).
“Saaremaa as a cruise tourism destination is not very well known in the world. The same can be said for Tallinn or even Estonia more broadly. Introducing a new harbor and destination takes time,” said Triin Rum, a marketing specialist.
Although Saaremaa harbor is still a small player, its client base has interestingly been quite diverse, bringing in cruise ships from 18 different companies over the course of eight years.
Meanwhile, in Tallinn, the Old City Harbor is expecting to have handled 500,000 cruise ship tourists by the end of the year, in addition to many more ferry passengers from countries like Finland and Sweden. The harbor has mostly seen steady growth over the past decade, starting from only 134,000 cruise ship tourists in 2001.