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Saaremaa paradox: Number of island visitors growing while hotels report slump

The Tõll, one of several ferries connecting Estonia's two largest islands to the mainland, at Kuivastu harbor.
The Tõll, one of several ferries connecting Estonia's two largest islands to the mainland, at Kuivastu harbor. Source: Margus Muld/ERR

The people of Saaremaa are trying to figure our where visitors to their island go after disembarking from the ferry. Passenger numbers are up, while accommodation providers are talking about a lean year.

Ferry operator TS Laevad is hoping to break its passenger record for trips to and from the western Estonian islands of Saaremaa and Hiiumaa this year.

TS Laevad board member Katrin Aron said the company expects to see records in all passenger segments, including foreign tourists, local residents and other Estonians traveling to and from the islands. "That said, we do not keep track on how long people spend on the island," Aron remarked.

But the positive statistics of the ferry operator is not reflected in the hotel industry in Saaremaa.

"Our own statistics suggests the relative importance of Estonians has fallen by 15 percent. Luckily, we've seen more foreign tourists again. As concerns [both foreign and domestic] tourists, there are a lot of short-term rental options regarding which statistics is hard to come by. But none of the hotels have seen growth this year," said Saaremaa hotel manager Terje Nepper.

"People probably still come but do not spend the night in these establishments. Half of visitors to the island have been staying with friends, acquaintances or relatives anyway," said Kristina Mägi, chief tourism specialist for Saaremaa Municipality. She added that spa hotels also find it increasingly difficult to sell customers additional services.

The first 11 months of 2023 have seen 83,000 more people travel to Saaremaa-Muhumaa compared to the same period last year. Local residents make up a little under 25 percent of all passengers.

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Editor: Marko Tooming, Marcus Turovski

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