Shipping companies that organize Baltic Sea cruises were hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, and despite many cruise ships canceling planned calls in Tallinn due to the war in Ukraine, an increasing number are instead postponing their departures from or planning multi-day calls in the Estonian capital.
Two COVID years took a heavy toll on the cruise business. 2022 started out with hopes of nearly 350 cruise ships calling on Tallinn, but after Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in late February, more than half of these ships canceled plans to visit the Estonian capital.
"As we know, St. Petersburg is the star attraction of Baltic Sea cruises — they were all en route to St. Petersburg," explained Ingrid Berezin, cruise and ferry business manager at the Port of Tallinn. "Now that St. Petersburg is off the list of destinations, they're seeking alternatives."
From a cruise business perspective, Tallinn and Helsinki are essentially located just outside of St. Petersburg. In lieu of this trio of stops, tourists are now being taken to Liepaja, Riga, Klaipeda, Kotka and Turku instead. The Western Estonian island of Saaremaa is also receiving more tourists than they could have hoped for this season.
"What's different this season is that a great deal of cruises have been planned so that the ships remain in port in Tallinn for 48 hours," Berezin explained.
Previously, cruise ship calls were planned several years in advance. This year, however, the Tallinn port needs to constantly be prepared for the unexpected.
"At the very last minute, a ship moored along the quay says that they're departing later today — most of them precisely later, not earlier — or that they're staying the night," she said.
Half of all cruise tourists visiting this year are Germans, and one in five is American. According to Berezin, such a high percentage of Americans indicates that fears of war aren't scaring tourists away from Estonia.
According to Canadian travel agent Janie Evans, who arrived in Tallinn on a cruise ship Sunday morning, many of her clients nonetheless canceled their European travel plans due to the war.
This trend is evident on the cruise ship itself, where the vast majority of passengers are Europeans themselves. Evans, however, is not afraid.
"We did a lot of research, we did a lot to make sure that we stayed in safe places, we travel with groups, with our excursions, with people from the ship and our tour guides, so as long as we stay safe and we're aware of what's going on around the world, I think it's even harder to just fly here with all the strikes and baggage losses," she said.
While cruise ships calling on Tallinn are still half empty, passenger numbers for scheduled ferry routes have seen a much faster recovery.
Tallink passenger numbers started increasing rapidly in May already, and according to Tallink communications director Katri Link, they are starting to reach pre-pandemic numbers again. Ongoing chaos at airports is giving them an extra boost right now as well.
"I don't know whether the fact that people hadn't been able to travel much for a couple of years has had an impact here," Link said. "People are traveling, going to restaurants, going to spas, and honestly, what we're hearing from our clients is that it's still somewhat cheaper in Estonia than in Finland."
Russia's decision to permit its citizens to travel abroad again, meanwhile, has significantly increased the number of people traveling from St. Petersburg to Estonia by bus. Many of them are en route to Tallinn to catch flights elsewhere.
"I live in St. Petersburg and this seemed convenient — more convenient than traveling via Turkey," said Irina, a bus passenger en route to Hamburg. "And right now this trip wasn't long enough to be exhausting."
Editor: Aili Vahtla