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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Baltic States Emerge as European Gems

TALLINN, Estonia — It takes just 18 minutes to get here by helicopter from Helsinki, Finland. But only a fool would take a cramped helicopter, say visiting Finns.

They pack a fleet of car ferries, stream here by the thousands every day, and have turned the visa-free, 90-minute crossings into an increasingly essential part of their household economies.

"How often do I come here? I think about making the trip every time I need a haircut," said Lauri Aalto, a retired teacher. "The cost difference alone pays for the ferry."

Indeed, the economics are so compelling that, statistically speaking, every one of Finland's 5 million citizens visited Tallinn last year, on the 28 daily roundtrip ferry runs.

In the Finnish countryside, feeder buses leave shortly after midnight to get to the ferry terminal for early-morning departures — carrying more than 6 million visitors a year.

And why not?

Gasoline here is one-third the price in Finland, prescription medicines one-half. Visitors can even buy meat and butter, produced in Finland by government-subsidized farmers, at cut-rate prices here. The list goes on: Clothes, plastic surgery, dental work — everything is much cheaper in Tallinn than Helsinki.

And alcohol. Every adult passenger is entitled to bring a liter of liquor plus two liters of fortified wines plus two cases of beer. Virtually every one does so. Special dispensaries at ferryboat exits hand out the beer. Supermarket-sized carts can be rented to push all the purchases past the customs officials, who did not appear to check them often.

Although prices in Estonia have been rising during its first decade of independence from the Soviet Union, shopping here is likely to remain attractive to Finns for a long time. Costs are not the sole reason. There are, for example, the two languages: Finnish and Estonian are more closely related than Spanish is to Portuguese, so Finnish visitors are easily understood, and some Finns have bought flats or summer homes here.

Many of Finland's biggest corporations have invested heavily in Estonia. The biggest supermarkets — like Stockmann — are owned by Finnish companies, which also have shifted many of their labor-intensive manufacturing operations to cheaper Estonia. All of this contrasts starkly with Soviet times, when Estonia and its Baltic neighbors, Latvia and Lithuania, were kept strictly isolated. Little by little, these countries are integrating with the outside world. They want to become members of NATO and the European Union.

If the Baltic states do join the European Union, those countries could look forward to a fundamental change. Border formalities would disappear, perceived distances would shrink. A Latvian or Lithuanian, for example, could drive in one day to Berlin or Helsinki.

A rudimentary highway connector, the Via Baltica, already stretches from the Polish border to Tallinn's ferry boat terminal.

As road conditions improve and border formalities are simplified, the Baltic states are likely to be discovered by increasing numbers of European travelers. The capitals have many interesting sites, particularly to those who appreciate architectural treasures.

•Vilnius, Lithuania's capital, founded in 1323, has a well-preserved old town with Gothic and Renaissance castles, palaces and churches. It is an important destination for Roman Catholic pilgrims, who revere a Black Madonna there.

•Riga, Latvia's capital, this year celebrates the 800th anniversary of its recorded history. Many of its oldest landmarks — including City Hall and the headquarters of a Germanic trading association — were destroyed during World War II. They have now been re-created but, lacking patina, look garish and Disneyland-ish. The real gem is the city's well-preserved Art Nouveau district. The Jurmala seaside resort just 20 kilometers outside Riga is a popular summer destination for tourists from all parts of the former Soviet Union.

With about 900,000 inhabitants, Riga is the largest of the Baltic capitals and has a big-city feel. It boasts a number of fine downtown stores.

•Tallinn is another old Germanic seaport. Restoration of its historic old town began under Communism and has since been accelerated. The downtown has been rezoned and Soviet-era factories have given away to redevelopment that has greatly increased the capital's attractiveness.

Over centuries, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have often been hostages in power plays among stronger neighbors. After regaining independence, they now want closer links to Central Europe. And the Via Baltica and the Helsinki-Tallinn ferryboats are just a beginning.