Even though bigger commercial bus line carriers have restored most of the routes which were closed during spring's coronavirus emergency situation, the number of travelers hasn't recovered, and the end of the year is likely to prove difficult for bus operators.
Summer, the relative retreat of the virus, and the removal of manyrestrictions gave bus lines hope that harder times had passed, as people started to use buses for intercity traveling again.
However, autumn and new virus outbreaks have reduced the number of passengers.
Manager at GoBus, Andrei Mändla, said that in summer, the occupancy rose to almost the level of last year, but in September, the occupancy was significantly smaller than last year. The exact numbers are still being calculated, he said.
Business manager of Lux Express Estonia, Ingmar Roos, told ERR that the number of travelers on the line increased quite significantly, with uptake standing at 70 percent of the figure for 2019.
Had there been more tourists in the country as per the situation before the pandemic, occupancy rates would have been even higher, Roos said.
Taisto lines' product manager, Jan Landrat, told ERR that people used buses to unexpected levels during summer.
In September, the picture changed, however. Lux Express lines had one-third fewer passengers than a year ago.
"If we consider that every year, the number of passengers decreases by 15 percent due to seasonal reasons, then the fall was noticeable. In other words, besides the annual decrease in the number of passengers, there was the fall that derived from the second wave, which has made an already difficult year even more harder," Roos said.
Mändla said that occupancy levels for GoBus lines is definitely smaller than it was last year.
Most of the lines have been restored
Jan Landrat said that 55 percent of routes have been restored.
"We have had to adjust to the new situation; both the companies and travelers have had to do so, and this will be the new norm for a long time to come," Landrat noted.
Andrei Mändla of GoBus said that as of now, all lines that were planned to be reopened, are working againg. "A few departures on the Tartu-Räpina and Tallinna-Haapsalu lines weren't reopened because the plan was to close them earlier due to lack of passengers," he said.
Lux Express had also restored 75 percent of its lines by summer. The only route that has been put on hold is the Tallinna-Rakvere express line, which had started at the beginning of the year, Ingmar Roos said.
Restrictions have brought along damages
Roos said that the economic damage, which derived from the restrictions established to restrain the spread of the virus, was extremely noticeable for Lux Express Group, particularly between Estonia and non-EU countries.
"The lines in the direction of Russia and Belarus haven't been restored - not even temporarily - and on lines that connect to Baltic and Polish destinations, we served several times smaller volumes than a year before. Currently, we are not predicting any improvement of the market situation by the end of the year," Roos said.
Mändla said that GoBus' economic damage stretches to around a few hundred thousand euros. "We don't have any hope that this will be covered by the end of the year," he noted.
Landrat said that the bus traffic between towns doesn't differ from the rest of the tourism sector, hence why people are traveling in this way less, and planning trips a long time ahead is no longer common anymore.
Companies: State support would be appropriate
The companies in a difficult situation say they wouldn't say no to any state aid. The state hasn't supported the carriers directly during the pandemic as it has with, for instance, shipping line Tallink, but the carriers have made use of the general wage support subsidy.
Roos did not bring out any specific action he had in mind, however, but stated that state support would be very appropriate for maintaining intercity bus services which generate tax revenue and provide jobs.
According to Andrei Mändla, state support could consist of assistance to financial institutions to enable 12-month lease payment grace periods for commercial buses, and to allow wider use of commercial buses in regular public transport.
According to Jan Landrat, state aid would be needed most to change the public transport law. The legislation emphasizes the need to ensure long-term stable bus traffic, but this does not mean that there are not situations where an undertaking has to make quick decisions and think in the short term, he said.
Editor: Roberta Vaino, Andrew Whyte