Old Town in Tallinn, Estonia, has focused on attracting domestic visitors as its tourism industry emerges from the pandemic. Photo by Guillaume Speurt /Wikimedia Commons.

As travel restrictions ease, Europe’s holiday destinations embark on the road to recovery from the pandemic.

In Tallinn’s Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the Estonian capital’s main tourist attraction, Kristjan Peaske and his Lee restaurant team are catering mostly to domestic tourists this summer.

Lee, renovated and rebranded during a pandemic shutdown, reopened in June as restrictions eased in Estonia. Before the pandemic, about half of Lee’s diners were tourists from abroad, Peaske said. The upscale eatery serves diners a rotating menu featuring fresh, local ingredients. It offers both inside and outdoor seating, and nice weather has enabled full use of the latter, Peaske said. “We’ve been operating only outside, actually, because it’s just so beautiful.” 

Estonia is rebounding after a spring lockdown during a third coronavirus wave across Europe. Before that lockdown, Estonia had taken a relatively relaxed approach to measures, compared with the rest of Europe. Restrictions on museums and exhibitions and dining outdoors were lifted on 3 May, with dining indoors being allowed from 24 May. Currently, mask wearing is recommended but not mandatory in enclosed and crowded places. Hotels, shops, and restaurants are fully open.

European tourist destinations have reason to be hopeful about the summer season. A recent study conducted by the European Travel Commission shows that 70 percent of Europeans were actively planning vacations in the second half of 2021, mostly in the summer months. Survey participants said they were more willing to travel due to the progress made on vaccination and the recent rollout of the European Union Digital COVID Certificate.

Holders of a Digital COVID Certificate are, in theory, exempt from any travel restrictions in place in their destination country. The certificate provides digital evidence that a traveler has either been vaccinated against COVID-19, has tested negative for the virus, or has recovered. The document is free of charge and as of 1 July is valid in all EU countries.

Vaccination drives across Europe are continuing. According to the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control’s (ECDC) vaccine tracker, as of mid-July, more than 245 million adults in the EU and EEA (European Economic Area) have received at least one dose of a vaccine, and 182 million have been fully vaccinated.

Nevertheless, the ECDC is monitoring the rapid spread of the Delta variant and predicts the epidemiological situation will deteriorate in Europe. 

To entice visitors, Visit Tallinn, the capital’s tourist office, has launched the Discover Tallinn campaign. It centers on the Tallinn Card, which provides free access to over 40 museums and attractions, free travel on public transport, and discounts on sightseeing tours, activities, dining, and shopping.

Discover Tallinn is focused on domestic tourists but international visitors also can take advantage of it. There are plans to expand the campaign to foreign markets, providing that the pandemic situation continues to improve, says its marketing manager, Helena Tsistova-Pohlak. 

Czech and Croatian Variants

Cities across the EU are hoping this summer will see far more local and foreign visitors than last year’s catastrophic tourism season.

Prague, one of the world’s top travel destinations, has continued its own tourism drive, At Home in Prague. For each night spent at a participating accommodation facility in the city, visitors receive a voucher for free or discounted access to attractions such as the Jewish Museum or Prague Castle.

The tourism drive began last summer to offset the dramatic drop in visitor numbers and managed to attract more than 70,000 visitors to the Czech capital, each spending on average 3.2 nights in the city. More than 400 accommodation facilities and more than 60 tourist sites participated. The economic benefit of the program in 2020 was estimated to be 202 million crowns (7.9 million euros), according to the city tourist office.

Prague also is collaborating with the state CzechTourism agency on marketing efforts to attract summer visitors from abroad, with a focus on neighboring Germany, Poland, Austria, and Slovakia.

Croatia was one of the first European countries to drop most of its pandemic travel restrictions and welcome tourists even from outside the EU. Croatia was also one of the first to start vaccinating tourism workers. Masks still must be worn indoors, and the sale of alcoholic beverages is banned between midnight and 6 a.m.

In 2020, tourist arrivals in Croatia were only about 40 percent of the 2019 level. Tourism accounts for about 20 percent of economic activity, and the country underwent one of the largest recessions in the EU as a result of the pandemic. Things are looking up for the Adriatic Sea hotspot this year. In June, according to the national tourism board, 1.5 million tourists visited Croatia, a 62 percent increase from June 2020. 

In Tallinn, though, businesses reliant on foreign tourists continue to struggle. Peaske, a member of the management board of the Estonian Hotel and Restaurant Association, said hotels are finding it more difficult than restaurants. “We still have very few tourists in Tallinn,” he said. Visitors from Finland usually account for the highest numbers of visitors to the city, but travel to Estonia from Finland remained classified as “restricted” in July and allowed only for work and other essential purposes.

Tallinn restaurateurs, concerned about what the fall will bring, are grateful for even a modest influx of domestic and international travelers to keep them afloat over the summer months, Peaske said. “We are happy to welcome everybody.”

Transitions editorial intern Elodie Phillips holds a bachelor’s degree in international relations and Russian from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and will start her master’s studies at the University of Tartu, Estonia, in the fall.