Drinking drunk can be expensive, especially if you live in Finland. That is why Finns looked south to the Baltics for many years, looking for cheaper liquor.
Then came the COVID pandemic and halved private alcohol imports.
As the introduction of vaccinations progresses, the borders to popular destinations in Estonia and Latvia are opening up to more and more people, and Finns again dare to dream of organizing big parties – with plenty of drinks – again.
The most expensive alcohol in the EU
Just a two-hour ferry ride from Helsinki, the Estonian capital Tallinn attracts with well-stocked and cheap liquor stores right in the harbor. A one-way trip from Helsinki to Tallinn typically costs 10–30 euros per ship, depending on the type of trip and the time.
Ship stores also sell duty-free alcohol at prices that are clearly lower than their competitors in Finland.
Finland is really the most expensive place to buy alcohol in the entire EU. Only a state-owned monopoly, called Alko, is allowed to sell beverages stronger than 5.5 percent by volume. beer and alcohol are usually heavily taxed.
If an alcohol bottle costs an average of 1.93 euros in Finland, it costs about 1.19 euros in Estonia and 1.14 euros in Latvia. Latest Eurostat statistics.
The EU average in this comparison would be € 1, while the same bottle would cost € 0.73 in the cheapest country, Hungary.
It is no wonder, then, that the terminals in the Port of Helsinki were a highway for wagons that had previously been crammed into beer boxes when the ferry arrived from Tallinn.
“For some of our customers, the price difference between Finland and the Baltic countries is certainly the reason why they want to go on a cruise or to the Baltics,” says Armi Kallio, Tallink Silja’s ferry communications expert.
Before the big festive seasons, for example in the spring, when the graduation party is coming or before Christmas, Tallink Silja organizes special five-hour shopping cruises where cheap drinks are the most popular products.
Half empty ferries to Estonia
Two years ago, about 15 percent of the alcohol used by Finns was purchased abroad.
The COVID pandemic suddenly stopped drinking cruises, and private imports fell by more than 50 percent from 2019 to 2020 – from 6.2 million liters to 3 million liters in pure alcohol.
According to the latest figures from the National Institute for Health and Welfare, passenger imports continued to fall this year: in the 12 months since August last year, Finns imported only 1.5 million liters of pure alcohol from abroad.
Now, traffic across the Gulf of Finland seems to be gradually picking up, as fully vaccinated Finns and those with a negative COVID-19 test result can again cross their borders into the Baltic countries.
Nearly 72.5 per cent of adult Finns have been fully vaccinated against COVID, and almost 86 per cent have had a single dose.
All three ferry connections along the route have started operating, and now offer both fast two-hour trips and longer night cruises.
“The number of passengers is still relatively small, but we can see some recreation,” said Armi Kallio from Tallink Silja.
While the huge ships have room for several thousand passengers, there are currently dozens or hundreds of guests, he noted.
“The weekends are a little busier, but we’re nowhere near selling out.”
Competing Viking Line shared a similar experience: “Passenger numbers are growing on weekends, but we are far from our normal pre-crown numbers,” press manager Christa Grönlund explained.
According to him, the autumn holiday in October looks promising, as many Finns want to go on a 2-3 day mini-holiday in the Baltics.
The Finns are probably heading to the Baltics
Chief expert Thomas Karlsson from the Department of Health and Welfare believes that Finnish ferry terminals will once again be filled with beer trolleys.
“If the COVID situation normalizes, people are more likely to travel to the surrounding area – places they feel and where they feel safe,” he noted, adding that it is interesting to see how fast travel is growing.
Karlsson, an expert in alcohol imports and cross-border trade, leads a project that calls 500 Finns every week and asks how much alcohol they import from abroad.
Prices affect how eager Finns are to bring alcohol home from abroad, Karlsson confirmed.
“When the price difference between Finland and Estonia grows, it may show up in the statistics. Large price changes affect behavior. “
However, it is not a law of nature, he pointed out. Many other factors are involved, such as how easy it is to travel – as has been clear during the COVID era.
“When Estonia joined the EU in 2004, Finns were very interested in traveling there to buy alcohol because it was suddenly possible, and the novelty attracted them,” he said. “It’s a complex palette.”
Estonia is cheap, Latvia even cheaper
One of the Finns who benefits from price differences is Sami Vuorinen.
“Alcohol is much more expensive in Finland than in our southern neighbors. I haven’t bought alcohol here in a long time because I’ve bought enough on my trips to Estonia and Latvia, ”he said.
Sami lives in Valkeakoski in western Finland, but has traveled regularly for years – typically at least five times a year – to Estonia and Latvia as part of power plant maintenance.
Vuorinen has noticed that beer and strong alcohol, such as vodka, are much cheaper – especially in Latvia. He often does business in the south of Estonia, and from there it is easy to cross the border into Latvia for shopping.
Before the pandemic, he saw many other Finnish cars parked outside alcohol shops.
“Many would come in a van or bring a trailer to actually store it,” he said.
During the pandemic, however, border trades were almost empty.
“In the worst times of the coronavirus, when no one else traveled, alcohol in Latvia was so cheap that it was close to free, although the best before date was often quite close.”
Cross-border trade in difficulty
As passenger numbers fell, shops specializing in cross-border trade, such as alcohol retailers in the Port of Tallinn and Valka in Latvia at the Estonian border, had difficulties.
“COVID has had a particular impact on the volume of trade in our border areas, which has decreased due to the closure of borders and the movement of people between countries,” said Lauri Uibo, Member of the Board of SIA Aldar Latvia. operates Super Alko stores in the country.
Super Alko has not closed any of its stores, but some competitors, such as Go Alcon, have had to close, said Uibo, adding that “the turnover and traffic of SuperAlko stores 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 sales outlets or the cash and transport warehouses in the Port of Tallinn.
According to Finnish studies, liquor stores on the Latvian border also became increasingly popular among Finns – until the coronavirus stopped leisure travel.
Uibo did not know how many Super Alko customers in Latvia there are from Finland, but in his experience most of them are residents of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania.
“Scandinavian tourists are also visiting our border shops along the Via Baltica motorway,” he added.
Via Baltica is the European road E67, which runs from northern Tallinn to Warsaw in the south of Poland.
“When travel restrictions related to COVID are lifted, we expect the number of tourists traveling to the Baltic countries to return before the pandemic,” Uibo added.
Cruise ships to Riga?
So far, there are no ferries directly from Finland to Latvia. Finns who want to buy liquor from Latvia have to drive a few hundred kilometers through Estonia to reach the border for cheap shops.
Armi Kallio said that Tallink Silja has organized special summer cruises to the Latvian capital Riga, which turned out to be very popular.
In the summer of 2020, they also organized cruises departing from Helsinki every other day called “A day in Riga”. These also attracted a lot of passengers.
“A year ago, the situation was exceptional, and the willingness to leave for Riga was probably influenced by the fact that it was a‘ safe ’place for the COVID relationship,” Kallio explained. He added that otherwise the very popular cruises from Helsinki to Stockholm were on hiatus because of the high rate of coronavirus infection in Sweden at the time.
“Besides, Riga was a ‘new’ destination for many,” he mentioned.
Silja Tallink may arrange cruises to Riga next summer, although nothing has been decided yet. However, Kallio doubts whether the water transport connection between Helsinki and Riga is economically sensible.
Cruise ships may be known mainly for shopping, karaoke bars, restaurants, spas and live music, but a huge portion of the money comes from freight. Helsinki-Riga is not in demand among truck drivers who prefer to follow the Via Baltica on their journeys between Finland and the rest of Europe, Kallio explained.
Sami Vuorinen has brought home a maximum of 15 bottles of beer and a few bottles of vodka and wine from Latvia. If he didn’t go to work so often, he could very well go to Latvia to shop, especially if some big party was coming, he thought.
In Lithuania, the third and southernmost Baltic country, liquor is even cheaper and prices are slightly below the EU average. Nevertheless, Sami wouldn’t just go there for shopping. “It’s too far away.”
Sami has not calculated how much he has saved by buying alcohol from the Baltics. “It depends on my beer consumption, but hardly much more than a hundred euros a year,” he said, adding: “And then, of course, there is a danger that my consumption will increase when a box of beer waits around the corner.”