While those discussing establishing a direct ferry link between Saaremaa and Latvia have had in mind reestablishing service between Mõntu and Ventspils, others familiar with the tourism industry find that only a direct link with the Latvian capital of Riga would ensure a significant boost in revenue for the island, regional paper Meie Maa said.
Saaremaa Municipality hopes to find an operator for the boat service between Mõntu and the Western Latvian seaport of Ventspils that came to a halt amid the economic crisis in 2008. Options for the route are to operate it with either a regular ferry, which would make the trip in four hours, or with a fast boat capable of completing the journey in just two hours.
Those familiar with the tourism industry, however, say that it is a direct connection between Roomassaare, the harbor of the island's capital of Kuressaare, and the Latvian capital of Riga that would be a game-changer. Such a ferry link existed briefly during the years of Soviet occupation.
The primary factor in favor of a Kuressaare-Riga connection is that it would connect two population centers, the paper said. The trip would take four hours with a fast boat carrying only passengers and no vehicles.
Karmen Paju, former longtime manager of the Kuressaare Tourist Information Center who now serves as a board member of the North Estonian Tourism Foundation, said that while both potential routes have their own particular target markets, a link to Riga would bring with it a massive surge in tourism statistics and give a tangible boost to the sector's revenues.
"New products and services could be developed as well," she added.
Paju noted that one benefit of the Ventspils ferry connection was that it helped open up Saaremaa to visitors, making it a place of transit between mainland Estonia and Latvia with its own entertainment opportunities instead of just an end destination. Given how highly people today value time, however, a direct link with Riga seems a bit more attractive. "The opportunities offered by big cities are broader as well," she added.
Tullio Liblik, developer of the WOW! Center set to open near Kuressaare soon, said that it was a matter of the amount of money available and the size of the vessel, and what matters is that at least one of these connections actually enters into service.
"If the Riga connection is made with too limited passenger capacity, someone will need to pay considerable amounts of money to keep it going," Liblik observed. "The distance to Ventspils is shorter, and so the service could even pay off within our lifetimes."
He also noted that the Mõntu-Ventspils service operated betwen 2006-2008 was not used by Latvians, much less by Riga residents, but rather by European tourists on a tour of the Baltics.
"In any case, we need to get a purpose-built boat onto this route, not some piece of junk," Liblik told Meie Maa. "People must be able to feel comfortable."
Mart Maastik, a tourism businessman and member of the Saare Municipal Council, also found that a connection with Riga looked to be the more sensible option.
"Obviously, being able to get from Riga to Kuressaare directly, albeit without a car, makes a difference, if for no other reason than due to the number of residents there," Maastik said. "I, for one, would use this service to travel on from Riga Airport."
The councilmember also noted that a ferry connection allowing residents of the island to reach Riga faster than the capital of Estonia would likely prompt many Saaremaa residents to do their shopping in Riga instead. "Considering our tax policy, you can very well guess what is going to happen," he said.
For those who would miss out on the opportunity to travel onward from Ventspils with their own car, Riga offers relatively cheap options for car rentals, Maastik added.
Editor: Aili Vahtla