Venice's old town gets fewer visitors per capita than Tallinn's

Tallinn Old Town.
Tallinn Old Town. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

People tend to travel to the most popular attractions sight and lament that there are too many tourists. The Old Town in Tallinn is one of these places, where local residents have fewer and fewer reasons to live and visit.

A substantial research on Tallinn's Old Town's sustainable development was recently completed. Riin Alatalu, an associate professor at the Estonian Academy of Arts and the coordinator of the UNESCO chair of cultural heritage studies, and Liis Ojamäe, an associate professor at Tallinn University of Technology (TalTech), discussed the study's key findings in the Vikerraadio program "Huvitaja."

For the study, researchers compared Tallinn and Venice, both of which are well-known tourist destinations. Surprisingly, it became apparent that Tallinn's Old Town was not inferior to Venice's in terms of pre-pandemic tourist numbers; in fact, the opposite was true. In 2017 about 24 million tourists visited Venice and 4.5 million visited Tallinn. Most of them would wind up in the Old Towns, which are 646 and 110 hectares, respectively. So for both cities the annual visitor load is about 40,000 per hectare of the attraction sight.

This indicates that prior to the pandemic, Venice had 470 visitors per Old Town resident per year, which comparable to 1960 in Tallinn. The ratio of foreign visitors to local residents in the Old Town of Tallinn in the pre-pandemic period was four times greater than in Venice. As a result, the population of Tallinn's Old Town is exceedingly marginalized, and there is considerable concern that the area is becoming overrun with tourists.

The comparison shows that, while Tallinn is not among the most popular tourist sites in the world, the Old Town, despite its small size, was at the top of the world's list in its pre-pandemic heyday.

The researchers analyzed the tourist-friendliness of Tallinn's Old Town as part of their study. Tourism tolerance refers to a city's ability to accommodate tourists without losing its unique identity or clashing with local culture. While tourists are beneficial to the economy, there is a concern that the Old Town could become overly reliant on tourism. The study's goal was to identify the points of contact between travelers and locals with the intent to improve the tourist experience while also preserving the area's cultural legacy.

Shock for Tallinn

Ojamae said that Old Town residents are not opposed to travelers, but they are concerned, because prior to the pandemic there was a strong sense of the increasing weight of tourism on their daily life. "It's important to find a balance. So that the Old Town is not solely concerned with the tourist industry, but also with the wants and needs of the  locals," she said.

Alatalu said the pandemic gave an opportunity to consider the future of the Old Town. "On the other hand, we witnessed the decline of the Old Town following the departure of foreign tourists. This exacerbates the dilemma. We should consider not only the foreign visitor, but also how a local would return to the old town," she said. While lessons from the pandemic have been learned, more could be done.

For example, Alatalu said Venice could be included on the UNESCO World Heritage List in Danger as a result of its failure to restrict visitor flows. So far, the efforts taken have been ineffective. "It should also serve as a reminder to Tallinn that something needs to be done to reduce the amount of tourists in the Old Town," Alatalu said.

During the busy season, or summer, Tallinn has between 20,000 and 30,000 tourists at any given moment, and tourist buses frequently jam the Old Town. "One of my favorite study topics was how we could get free of the 500 buses in Tallinn's Old Town, which only travel a couple kilometers from the harbor to Toompea, then back to Mere puieste," she said. This can be managed by the city, for instance through a circular bus service. Alternatively, she suggested offering bicycle rental so that tourists can independently locate everything they require.

Overtourism is not unique to Tallinn's Old Town; it affects all historic tourist areas. According to Alatalu, one of the key thoughts is that it must be actively addressed. In other parts of the world, this debate has been ongoing for several decades, but in Estonia it is relatively recent. Different communities employ various strategies. "The idea and vision should come from the local government, but it will only be viable if done in collaboration with local residents and business owners," she said.

"The city should adopt a slightly more assertive stance. However, this often backfires," Alatalu said. "It often turns out that there has been no discussion at all, while it could have been a mutually beneficial collaboration. The fear that the other side will not cooperate is often completely unfounded," Alatalu said.

It is also critical to shift the perspective that tourism is more than simply an economic, but a multifaceted phenomena that affects daily life in both positive and negative ways.

If it is advantageous for the local population of Tallinn to live there, the positive effects will outweigh the negative ones. And also for Estonians who live in other areas of the city. They too should be fond of the Old Town. "One of the great success stories of Tallinn Old Town is that we have so many schools in the Old Town. This means that children, their parents and teachers come there every day," Alatalu said.

Who lives in the Old Town?

Ojamäe said that people living in the Old Town are characterized by their appreciation of their special place, even though living in the Old Town is not the easiest.

There are a number of difficulties to overcome, even excluding those posed by over-tourism. The primary concern is that the historic location still necessitates certain requirements, such as waste collection. Due to the Old Town's narrow streets and small courtyards, bin storage space is limited.

Architecturally important buildings are also difficult to maintain or renovate because of the specific knowledge and services required.

Residents, on the other hand, particularly enjoy the Old Town's unique setting, atmosphere, and urban hustle and bustle, according to Ojamäe. Noise at night is a problem: people who complain about it are often told that they must take this into consideration if they choose reside in the Old Town. Ojamä said that a solution must be found, but that the initiative has to come from the local government.

"It is important for service providers to be aware of their responsibilities, but there are also a great many responsible restaurant and café operators and generalizations should not be made," she said.

Conflicts of this kind are quite common in old towns and nothing but negotiation will help. On the one hand, there are rules and regulations, but on the other hand, a softer approach can be used, Ojamäe said. For example, to raise awareness among tourists that people live in the Old Town and that it is not just a place of entertainment, but that it is someone's home.

Tallinn Old Town has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1997.

The study "Sustainable management and exhibition of Tallinn Old Town" (link in Estonian) is authored by Triin Talk, Raul Kalvo, Katrin Paadam, Liis Ojamäe and Riin Alatalu.


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