Erik Gamzejev: Tourism has brought Ida-Viru County closer to Estonia

Erik Gamzejev.
Erik Gamzejev. Source: Rene Kundla/ERR

Getting a feel for Ida-Viru County's contrasts and diversity is important. The region is still too quick to earn stereotypical treatments elsewhere in Estonia that while not wholly wrong, nevertheless, do not reflect the reality in the county accurately, Erik Gamzejev writes in Vikerraadio's daily comment.

Legendary Ida-Viru County traveler and tour guide Enn Käiss, who passed away this fall, was convinced that tourism would put Ida-Viru County on the map already in the early 1990s. Back then, the authorities were convinced this was at best a fanatic's dream.

Indeed, the Kohtla-Nõmme mining museum, Kiviõli adventure center, several modern spas overlooking the Gulf of Finland and fancy manor hotels did not exist yet.

The summer Narva energy run or winter night run, adventure sport competitions leading across Ida-Viru bogs, industrial landscapes and rapids were not held.

There was no Jõhvi Ballet Festival, and the organizers of the Station Narva or Voice of the Hills (Mägede Hääl) festivals that have become true Ida-Viru landmarks by now were still attending school or kindergarten. Master of Saka Manor Tõnis Kaasik was still environment minister in Edgar Savisaar's government. The Jõhvi Concert Hall and the Vaba Lava did not yet exist.

By today, tourism has become one of Ida-Viru County's success stories. Despite having to overcome various setbacks and often fight for survival.

In a situation where Russian tourists are probably out of the picture for years, courtesy of their warlike president, Ida-Viru tourism leaders are making efforts to convince the Finns to visit Narva and the area around Lake Peipus, next to Tallinn. In eastern Finland, where Russian tourists have also disappeared, they are once again thinking about reopening the ferry link between Kotka and Sillamäe.

Ida-Viru tourism companies managed to attract an unprecedented number of domestic tourists by sticking together during the Covid years. For many, their trip was the first time to visit this corner of Estonia. It turned out there are still places to discover in our small country. Some even became addicted to Ida-Viru County.

New sites for adventure and exercise, hiking trails, cultural institutions, spas and restaurants have rendered Ida-Viru living environment more bountiful also for the locals, next to challenging the stereotypical view that the area offers little in the way of recreation.

Enn Käiss found 30 years ago that Ida-Viru County should not be labeled a shock tourism destination, which opportunity was offered by the ruins of Soviet industrial complexes, ash plateaus or quarries. Rather, we should highlight Ida-Viru County contrasts and the region's singularity. A place where industrial and natural landscapes, as well as different cultures and peoples exist side by side.

Enn believed Ida-Viru County should be shown as an area that is important for all of Estonia. As a tour guide, he used to tell people coming to see the oil shale waste rock hills of the mines that because almost everyone in Estonia has participated in creating the hills as an electricity consumer, they can take home their share of waste rock...

Getting a feel for Ida-Viru contrasts and diversity is just as important today. The region is still too quick to earn stereotypical treatments elsewhere in Estonia that while not wholly wrong, nevertheless, do not reflect the Ida-Viru reality accurately. One such simplified notion is that Ida-Viru County is a purely Russian region and home to poor people who harbor ill sentiment toward the Estonian state.

It would be good to know that the county's roughly 130,000 residents include 25,000 Estonians. This is more than the total populations of Põlva, Lääne or Hiiu counties. And even though Ida-Viru residents include supporters of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, they number at least as many in Tallinn. At the same time, many Ida-Viru County Russians who have put their children in an Estonian school and are great Estonian patriots at heart quite justifiably feel vexed when they are lumped in with Putinists.

The rate of unemployment is higher in Ida-Viru County than in any other Estonian county at 11.3 percent. This has been the case at very short intervals for the past quarter century. At the same time, data from the Unemployment Insurance Fund suggests Ida-Viru County has more jobs offering above average salary than most other counties. Oil shale mines, after carrying out sweeping layoffs in previous years, are once again looking for employees, as are new circular economy businesses.

The relative poverty rate is high in Ida-Viru County, whereas its average gross salary tends to be in the more successful half of Estonian counties.

This is due to miners and power company workers making well above the national average wage. Well-paid public sector jobs also play a part: law enforcement, medics and teachers. Teachers giving lessons in Estonian making one and a half times what teachers elsewhere in Estonia earn starting from the next academic year is also sure to contribute to the general wage level. Traders and service providers have what to go after in Ida-Viru County.

Tourism, cultural and sporting events have brought Ida-Viru County closer to the rest of Estonia, while many stereotypes still need to be busted. There is no better way to do that than turning up, seeing for oneself and talking to the people.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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