Getting drunk can be an expensive affair, especially if you live in Finland. That is why the Finns for many years used to look south to the Baltic countries in search of cheaper alcoholic beverages.
Then came the COVID pandemic, cutting private alcohol imports in half.
As vaccine launches progress, borders with popular destinations Estonia and Latvia are opening to more people, and Finns are daring to dream of throwing big parties, with lots of drinks, again.
The most expensive country in the EU for alcohol
Just a two-hour ferry ride from Helsinki, the Estonian capital, Tallinn tempts with cheap and well-stocked liquor stores right on the harbor. A one-way trip from Helsinki to Tallinn usually costs between 10 and 30 euros, depending on the ship, the type of trip and the time of day.
The on-board shops also sell duty-free alcohol at prices well below what their competitors on Finnish soil can offer.
Finland is, in fact, the most expensive place to buy alcohol in the entire EU. Only the state monopoly, called Alko, can sell beverages with a content higher than 5.5% vol. beer and alcohol are generally heavily taxed.
On average, if a bottle of alcoholic drink costs € 1.93 in Finland, it costs around € 1.19 in Estonia and € 1.14 in Latvia. Recent Eurostat statistics show.
The EU average in this comparison would be € 1, while the same bottle would cost € 0.73 in the cheapest country, Hungary.
So it’s no wonder that Helsinki harbor terminals used to be a highway of wobbly carts full of beer crates when a ferry from Tallinn arrived.
“For some of our customers, the price difference between Finland and the Baltic countries is surely the reason why they want to go on a cruise or to the Baltic,” said Armi Kallio, communications specialist for the Tallink Silja ferry line.
Before the big holiday seasons, for example in the spring when graduation parties are approaching or before Christmas, Tallink Silja organizes special five-hour shopping cruises, where well-priced drinks are among the most popular items.
Half empty ferries to Estonia
Two years ago, approximately 15 percent of all alcohol consumed by Finns was purchased abroad.
The COVID pandemic suddenly stopped alcoholic beverage cruises, and private imports fell more than 50 percent from 2019 to 2020, from 6.2 million liters to 3 million liters, measured in pure alcohol.
According to the latest figures released by the Finnish Institute of Health and Welfare, traveler imports continued to decline this year: During the 12 months from August last year to this year, Finns brought just 1.5 million liters of pure alcohol to the Travel abroad.
Now, traffic over the Gulf of Finland appears to be slowly increasing, as fully vaccinated Finns and those with a negative COVID-19 test may re-cross the borders into the Baltic states.
Almost 72.5 percent of adult Finns are fully vaccinated against COVID and about 86 percent have received a dose.
All three ferry lines operating on the route have resumed traffic, and quick two-hour rides and longer night cruises are now offered.
“The number of travelers is still relatively small, but we can see a bit of vigor,” said Armi Kallio from Tallink Silja.
Although the huge ships have room for several thousand passengers, guests now number in the tens or hundreds, he noted.
“The weekends are a little more lively, but we are not even close to selling out.”
The Viking Line competition shared a similar experience: “The number of passengers during the weekends is growing, but we are far from our normal pre-crown numbers,” explained press manager Christa Grönlund.
Looking ahead, he said, the autumn holidays in October look promising as many Finns want to vacation in the Baltics for two to three days.
Finns are likely to travel to the Baltics again
Chief specialist Thomas Karlsson of the Finnish Institute of Health and Welfare believes that Finnish ferry terminals will once again be filled with beer carts.
“If the COVID situation normalizes, it is likely that people will travel first to the neighboring region, places they know and where they feel safe,” he said, adding that it will be interesting to know at what rate the trip will increase.
Karlsson, a specialist in alcohol importation and cross-border trade, leads a project that calls 500 Finns every week to ask how much alcohol they bring from their trips abroad.
Prices have an impact on how eager Finns are to bring alcohol home from abroad, Karlsson confirmed.
“When the price difference between Finland and Estonia grows, it may well show in the statistics. Big price changes affect behavior. “
However, it is not a natural law, he commented. There are many other factors at play, such as how easy it is to travel, as was made clear during COVID.
“When Estonia joined the EU in 2004, the Finns were very interested in traveling there to buy alcohol, because suddenly it was possible, they were attracted by the novelty,” he said. “It is a complex palette.”
Estonia is cheap, Latvia even cheaper
One of the Finns who takes advantage of the price difference is Sami Vuorinen.
“Alcohol is considerably more expensive in Finland than in our southern neighboring countries. I have not bought alcohol here for a long time, as I have bought enough on my trips to Estonia and Latvia, ”he said.
Sami lives in Valkeakoski in western Finland, but for many years he has traveled regularly, usually at least five times a year, to Estonia and Latvia as part of his power plant maintenance work.
Vuorinen has noted that, in particular, beer and strong alcohol, such as vodka, are much cheaper, especially in Latvia. He often does business in southern Estonia, and from there it is easy to cross the border into Latvia to do some shopping.
Before the pandemic, I would see many other Finnish cars parked outside alcohol shops.
“A lot of them came in a truck or brought a trailer to really hog,” he said.
However, during the pandemic, the border stores were almost empty.
“During the worst times of the coronavirus, when no one else could travel, alcohol was so cheap in Latvia that it was close to being free, although the expiration date was often quite close.”
Border stores in trouble
As the number of passengers declined, shops specializing in border trade, such as alcohol retailers in the port of Tallinn and in the Latvian city of Valka on the Estonian border, had a hard time.
“COVID has particularly affected the number of stores in our border areas, which has decreased due to the closure of the borders and the obstruction of the movement of people between countries,” said Lauri Uibo, a board member of the company SIA Aldar Latvia, which operates Super Alko stores in the country.
Super Alko has not closed any of its stores, but some competitors, such as Go Alco, have had to close, Uibo said, adding that “the turnover and traffic of SuperAlko stores located in cities have increased significantly during COVID.” .
The Super Alko chain is well known in Finland, as millions of Finnish tourists have visited one or more of the 40 Estonian outlets or the cash & carry warehouse in the port of Tallinn.
According to Finnish surveys, liquor stores on the border with Latvia were also becoming increasingly popular with Finns, until the coronavirus stopped leisure travel.
Uibo didn’t know how many of Super Alko’s customers in Latvia are from Finland, but in his experience, most of them are residents of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania.
“Tourists from Scandinavia also visit our border stores, which are located on the Via Baltica highway,” he added.
Via Baltica is the section of the European highway E67 that runs from Tallinn in the north to Warsaw in Poland in the south.
“When COVID-related travel restrictions are removed, we expect the number of tourists traveling to the Baltic states to return to a pre-pandemic level,” Uibo added.
Cruises to Riga?
At the moment, there are no ferries that go directly from Finland to Latvia. Finns who want to buy alcohol in Latvia have to drive a few hundred kilometers through Estonia to get to the cheap shops on the border.
Armi Kallio said that Tallink Silja has organized special summer cruises to the Latvian capital, Riga, which proved very popular.
During the summer of 2020, they also organized cruises that left Helsinki every other day, called “A day in Riga”. These also attracted many passengers.
“A year ago the situation was exceptional, and the desire to go to Riga was probably affected by the fact that it was a ‘safe’ place in terms of COVID,” Kallio explained. He added that otherwise very popular cruises from Helsinki to Stockholm were on hiatus, due to the high rate of coronavirus infection in Sweden at the time.
“Also, Riga was a ‘new’ destination for many,” he mentioned.
Silja Tallink could organize cruises to Riga again next summer, although nothing has been decided yet. Kallio doubts, however, that a permanent connection between Helsinki and Riga by water makes financial sense.
Cruise ferries may be known primarily for their shops, karaoke bars, restaurants, spas, and live music, but a large part of the money actually comes from cargo. Helsinki-Riga is not in demand among truckers, who prefer to follow Via Baltica on their journeys between Finland and the rest of Europe, Kallio clarified.
At most, Sami Vuorinen has brought 15 cases of beer and a few bottles of vodka and wine home from Latvia. If he weren’t so often on business, he might as well go to Latvia to buy some alcohol, especially if a big party was coming up, he thought.
In the third Baltic country and further south, Lithuania, the drink is even cheaper with prices just below the EU average. However, Sami would not go there just to go shopping. “It is too far.”
Sami has not counted how much he has saved by buying alcohol in the Baltic countries. “It depends on my beer consumption, but hardly more than a hundred euros a year,” he said, adding: “And then, of course, there is a risk that my consumption will grow, when a case of beer is waiting on the corner.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism