Part-lifting of Saaremaa travel restrictions sees small uptick in visitors

Virtsu harbor on the mainland, embarkation point for Saaremaa, on Monday.
Virtsu harbor on the mainland, embarkation point for Saaremaa, on Monday. Source: ERR

Following a government order last week, people who have a registered residency on Saaremaa and Estonia's other western islands are be able to travel there as of Monday. However, according to a report on ETV current affairs show "Aktuaalne kaamera" Monday night, more people were wanting to travel from Saaremaa to the mainland, than in the reverse direction, on day one of the lifted restrictions.

There was no big queue at Virtsu harbor on the mainland – a regular sight since the coronavirus pandemic led to travel restrictions to Saaremaa and Muhu, Estonia's worst hit region, but Monday's change didn't seem to make a difference.

The first ferry had left at 5.30 a.m., with Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) arriving an hour beforehand. Previously only full-time residents had been permitted to travel to the island, a popular location for second homes. Now, those who have a secondary residence will be able to travel there as summer approaches and the rate of new COVID-19 cases subsides, though they will still have to present proof of residence to the PPA when asked.

"I was a little scared..., but fortunately there is no one here," musician Jaagup Kreem told "Aktuaalne kaamera".

"Isn't it the case that getting to Saaremaa right now, you have to have a registration there or at least one address. /.../ I kept my eye on Saaremaa and every day watched the news, worried that I have a lot of friends and relatives and acquaintances in Saaremaa. Hopefully that time is over," he went on.

"I didn't need to go there at all before, but I have some bee hives on the island, and it is a so-called critical moment; it should be inspected, apple trees should be cut," another traveler, Peeter, said.

"You don't just spend the summer in Saaremaa, you can still work. It's been a bit bitter for a while now that everything has been out there. /.../ I guess you have to mow the lawn and start heating the house there. That's the first thing. Then you have to start on all those greenhouses and farm work, and then there's the tree work," said Janek, anbother person taking advantage of the lifted travel restrictions.

PPA officer Vello Vichterpal said that in fact there had been an uptick in visitors even if the numbers leaving the island were still larger.

"In my view, more people have left the island than have gone there. But there are still many more going today. Whereas last week, two or three cars boarded the 1 p.m. ferry, now 29 cars have already booked."

This hadn't led to any problems, he went on.

"Everyone remains calm, we can communicate well, we haven't got into a fight with anyone."

Incidents of people being turned back at the port due to not meeting the requirements are rate, Vichterpal went on, though they have happened.

"We will send back those who want to visit Saaremaa for tourism reasons, for example. On Saturday, there was a girl who wanted to go to Orissaare, for a holiday, at a hotel. We could not let her go," Vichterpal said.

At present, all full lifting of travel restrictions and resumption of normal ferry timetables to Estonia's western islands is due to take place on May 18, the day after the emergency situation – extended from its original deadline of April 30 – to May 17.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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