Minister of Economic Affairs and Infrastructure Riina Sikkut (SDE) has rejected Transport Administration (Transpordiamet) chief Priit Sauk's claims that flight and ferry links to and from Hiiumaa and Saaremaa are often an unnecessary extravagance and burden on the taxpayer.
Sikkut, under whose aegis as economics minister the Transport Administration lies, said the remarks could both be refuted by the data and were too "Tallinn-centric."
"The Transport Board's criticism of 'national extravagance' is inappropriate, as the tender organized by the procurement process for Hiiumaa resulted in the delivery of an aircraft almost half the size of its predecessor – a 33-seater instead of a 19-seater," she went on.
"At the same time, statistics show that the average availability of a large aircraft even increased, and in February, the average aircraft occupancy on the Hiiumaa route, even with a significantly larger aircraft, was 57 percent," Sikkut added, in support of similar statements made by the island's mayor, in response to Sauk's remarks.
"The head of the Transport Board, Priit Sauk, described the close air, and also ferry connection between the mainland and the islands as a regrettable state overspending, mistakenly characterizing the air connection as a being a 'convenience service'," the minister continued.
"Such a view - unfortunately a very Tallinn-centric one – has already been tried to be sold to the public with the argument of savings," Sikkut told ERR.
"The islanders say, ironically, that of course it would be easier if everyone lived in the capital. In reality, however, a modern country must ensure that close connectivity with the islands is guaranteed both on sea and in the air, even when passenger numbers are low at certain times of the year," Sikkut went on.
The fact that islanders often have to set their entire life schedules to those of the ferries and flights is often lost on Tallinners, Sikkut added.
"But it's okay if you have forgotten about that; we'll remind you again - Hiiumaa and Saaremaa are part of Estonia, and when organizing the transport of the whole country, you can't forget the most important, regional political aspect. Regional policy, not profitability, must be prioritized in the connectivity of remote regions,"
She also referred to the same vital service the transport links and particularly the flights play in facilitating doctors shuttling between Hiiumaa and Tallinn, for instance, allowing them to work in both locations where needed, with a 30-minute flight available,
Thursday morning saw around a dozen people traveling from Hiiumaa to Tallinn, Sikkut said, but on the other hand, going in the opposite direction on the Friday morning, the planes were full to capacity, she said.
Sauk had made his remarks, in an interview published in the Transport Administration's own online newsletter, in relation to both islands.
Sikkut also stated that ferry passengers in February this year, on the Saaremaa and Hiiumaa routes, totaled 113,000, compared with 87,000 in February 2022.
"And this is outside of tourist season," Sikkut went on, adding that costs must of course be always born in mind and schedules adjusted in line with demand – not only in traveling to and from the islands, but also nationwide.
Ultimately, people should be able to get from point A to point B within Estonia as and when they need to, including without using a private vehicle, she added.
Hiiumaa's mayor, Hergo Tasuja, is, like Sikkut, in the Social Democrats, a party which performed strongly on the island at the 2021 local election.
Editor: Andrew Whyte