Tallinn Old Town last had this few residents after the Great Northern War

Triin Talk on
Triin Talk on "Uudishimu tippkeskus". Source: ERR

Brochures on Estonia either depict the world's nicest summer day or coziest Christmas, which is why tourists tend to arrive at set times that can cause Tallinn to be backed up. It all seems rather empty at other times. How is Tallinn tourism doing and what should be done differently?

Going abroad was a major luxury a few decades ago before it became an everyday occurrence just a few years back. The pandemic then shuffled the deck once more. Where are we headed today? Who should set Estonia as their travel destination and why and what effect is this having on the locals?

ETV popular science show "Uudishimu tippkeskus" looked at trends in tourism and took a walk in Tallinn with Estonian Academy of Arts doctoral student Triin Talk who is fascinated by sustainable tourism.

Tallinn is a coastal city and the sea like an endless highway that people can take anywhere. Who are the people coming here by sea?

An unexpected number of Tallinn visitors come by sea. Perhaps we have gotten used to the idea that traveling is done by plane. Looking at statistics, over ten million people came to Tallinn by sea and just over three million by plane before the pandemic.

A single cruise ship can bring 5,000 visitors, and even though the Old Town is very close [to the cruise ships port], many still use coaches to get around. It is vital to create a convenient pedestrian link between the Old Town and port area to motivate as many people as possible to walk the distance or use bicycles or scooters for the journey.

Toompea used to be a city unto itself back in the day. Now, it is a part of Tallinn and the starting point of many tours, as it is convenient to take a bus from the port to Toompea Hill and then start coming down. It is the first place cruise tourists are brought using tour buses.

Not just cruise tourists, other visitors as well. It is often the starting point [for tours] as buses can be parked on Falgi tee. You can get right up to Toompea so you can start tours from here for people who might not find climbing steep stairs or streets much to their liking. Before the pandemic, guides were saying that their work was more akin to that of kindergarten teachers, trying to keep groups together when navigating the crowds on Toompea.

Once these millions of visitors do reach the Old Town, there seems to be plenty to do. However, what is the locals' take on this? How many people in the Old Town are residents rather than tourists.

The population of the Old Town has really shrunk. The latest census put it at just 2,300 residents, which is very little compared to the history of the area. The last time so few people lived in the Old Town was after the Great Northern War and plague.

And yet we can see quite a lot of residential space – who lives there? Or are these spaces empty?

A lot of agencies and offices have been moved to the Old Town. When it comes to residential space, there is quite a lot of short term renting, meaning apartments are let out to tourists.

We worked with sociologists from Tallinn University on an extensive study of what the locals think of the Old Town as a living, heritage and tourism environment.

It turned out that people value the unique living environment and historical housing, as well as myriad culture offerings. Night-time noise associated with entertainment establishments was highlighted as a negative aspect of life in the Old Town.

Noise complaints can also concern rental apartments on the other side of the wall. The people there may have come to party instead of going to bed at night.

The Old Town is a walled city. Will there come a point where we feel that it's full to the brim and cannot accommodate any more tourists?

I believe we hit that wall a few years back. We were at or even over capacity when the Old Town had tens of thousands of simultaneous visitors at peak times.

What do scientists recommend in terms of not stepping on that rake again? How to facilitate more people while making sure both tourists and locals feel good?

The main recommendation is dispersion! We could concentrate on showing and highlighting other things than the Old Town.

The Old Town is one part of Tallinn's valuable architecture, while it is by no means the only one. We have other interesting, unique and visitable strata. We could mentally expand that area.

People who fly in could start with the Ülemiste City. It has a lot of nice historical industrial architecture next to modern architecture and landscaping.

Tallinn's other major treasure and specialty are wooden residential areas: Kalamaja, Kadriorg and Kassisaba. Other European cities have never had such wooden residential districts or if they did, they have long since been taken down and replaced with something else. It is something we should take pride in and show our visitors.

It is vital, both in terms of tourism and general development, to have residents in all parts of the city. The citizens make a city and keep it alive.

Make it more than just an amusement park?

Yes. We should definitely avoid it becoming an amusement park or Disneyland, and we are working to that end.

Stenbock House, the seat of the Estonian government, in the snow. December 2021. Source: Tõnu Tunnel


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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