Getting drunk can be an expensive affair, especially if you live in Finland. That’s why Finns for many years used to look southwards to the Baltics in search of cheaper booze.
Then the COVID pandemic came and cut private imports of alcohol in half.
As vaccination rollouts advance, the borders to popular destinations Estonia and Latvia are opening up to more people, and Finns dare to dream about throwing big parties -- with plenty of drinks -- again.
EU’s most expensive country for alcohol
Only a two-hour ferry trip away from Helsinki, Estonia's capital Tallinn tempts with well-stocked and cheap booze shops right on the harbour. A one-way trip from Helsinki to Tallinn typically costs between 10 and 30 euros, depending on the vessel, the type of the trip and the time of the day.
The shops onboard also sell tax-free alcohol at prices well below those that their competitors on Finnish soil can offer.
Finland is indeed the most expensive place to buy alcohol in the whole of the EU. Only the state-owned monopoly, called Alko, is allowed to sell beverages stronger than 5.5% vol. beer and alcohol is, generally, heavily taxed.
On average, if a bottle of alcoholic beverage costs €1.93 in Finland, it costs about €1.19 in Estonia and €1.14 in Latvia, recent statistics from Eurostat show.
The EU average would in this comparison be €1, while the same bottle would cost €0.73 in the cheapest country Hungary.
So no wonder that the terminals in Helsinki port used to be a highway of wobbly trolleys stacked with beer cases when a ferry arrived from Tallinn.
“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 Baltics,” said Armi Kallio, communications specialist at the ferry line Tallink Silja.
Ahead of big party seasons, for example in the spring when graduation parties are coming or before Christmas, Tallink Silja organises special five-hour shopping cruises, where beverages at good prices are among the most popular products.
Half-empty ferries to Estonia
Two years ago, about 15 per cent of all alcohol consumed by Finns was bought abroad.
The COVID pandemic suddenly arrested the booze cruises, and private imports dropped over 50 per cent from 2019 to 2020 - from 6.2 million litres to 3 million litres, measured in pure alcohol.
According to the latest numbers published by the Finnish Institute of Health and Welfare, traveller imports continued decreasing this year: During the 12 months from August last year to this year, Finns brought only 1.5 million litres of pure alcohol from travelling abroad.
Now, the traffic over the Gulf of Finland seems to be slowly picking up, as fully vaccinated Finns and those with a negative COVID-19 test result are free to cross the borders to the Baltic countries again.
Almost 72.5 per cent of adult Finns are fully vaccinated against COVID, and close to 86 per cent have had one dose.
The three ferry lines that operate on the route have all resumed traffic, and both quick two-hour trips and longer overnight cruises are now on offer.
“The number of travellers is still relatively small, but we can observe a bit of invigoration,” said Armi Kallio from Tallink Silja.
Although the enormous ships have room for several thousand passengers, guests are right now counted in tens or hundreds, she noted.
“The weekends are a little more lively, but we are nowhere close to being sold out.”
Competing Viking Line shared a similar experience: “The number of passengers during the weekends is growing, but we are far away from our normal pre-corona numbers,” press manager Christa Grönlund explained.
Looking ahead, she said, the autumn break in October looks promising, as many Finns want to go on a 2-3 day mini-holidays to the Baltics.
Finns likely to head to the Baltics again
Chief specialist Thomas Karlsson from the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare believes that Finnish ferry terminals will again be filled with beer trolleys.
“If the COVID situation is normalised, it is likely that people will be travelling to the neighbouring region first - places they know and where they feel safe,” he noted, adding that it will be interesting to follow at what pace travelling will increase.
Karlsson, a specialist in alcohol imports and cross-border trade, leads a project that every week calls 500 Finns to ask them how much alcohol they bring from their travels abroad.
Prices do 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 do affect behaviour.”
It is, however, not a natural law, he remarked. Many other factors are at play, such as how easy it is to travel - as has been clear during COVID.
“When Estonia joined the EU in 2004, Finnish people were very interested in travelling there to buy alcohol, because it was suddenly possible, they were attracted by the novelty,” he said. “It’s a complex palette.”
Estonia is cheap, Latvia even cheaper
One of the Finns that take advantage of the price difference is Sami Vuorinen.
“Alcohol is considerably more expensive in Finland than in our neighbouring countries to the south. I haven’t bought alcohol here for a long time, since I’ve bought enough on my trips to Estonia and Latvia,” he said.
Sami lives in Valkeakoski in western Finland but has for many years travelled regularly -- typically at least five times a year -- to Estonia and Latvia as part of his work servicing power plants.
Vuorinen has noticed that in particular 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 to Latvia to do some shopping.
Prior to the pandemic, he would see many other Finnish cars parked outside the alcohol stores.
“Many would come in a van or bring a trailer in order to really hoard,” he said.
However, during the pandemic, the border shops were almost empty.
“During the worst coronavirus times, when nobody else got to travel, alcohol was so cheap in Latvia that it was close to being free, though the best before date was often pretty close.”
Border shops in trouble
As passenger numbers dropped, shops specialising in border trade, such as the alcohol retailers in Tallinn’s harbour and in the Latvian town Valka on the Estonian border had a hard time.
“COVID has particularly affected the number of shops in our border areas, which has fallen as the borders were closed and the movement of people between countries was hampered,” said Lauri Uibo, a member of the board of the company SIA Aldar Latvia, which operates the Super Alko stores in the country.
Super Alko has not closed any of its shops, but some competitors, such as Go Alco, have had to shut, said Uibo, adding “the turnover and traffic of SuperAlko stores located in cities have significantly increased 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.
The booze shops at the Latvian border were, according to Finnish surveys, also becoming increasingly popular among Finns - until the coronavirus put a stop to leisure travels.
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 shops, which are located on the Via Baltica highway,” he added.
Via Baltica is the stretch of the European road E67 that goes from Tallinn in the North to Poland’s Warsaw in the South.
“When COVID related travel restrictions are lifted, we expect that the number of tourists travelling to the Baltic states will return to a pre-pandemic level,” Uibo added.
Cruise ships to Riga?
As of now, no ferries go directly from Finland to Latvia. Finns who want to buy booze in Latvia, have to drive a few hundred kilometres down through Estonia to get to the cheap shops on the border.
Armi Kallio said that Tallink Silja has organised special summer cruises to the Latvian capital Riga that proved very popular.
During the summer of 2020, they also arranged cruises departing from Helsinki every other day, called “A day in Riga”. These also attracted many passengers.
“A year ago the situation was exceptional, and the eagerness to go to Riga was probably affected by the fact that it was a ‘safe’ place in terms of COVID,” Kallio explained. She added that the otherwise very popular cruises from Helsinki to Stockholm were on pause, due to the high rate of coronavirus infection in Sweden at the time.
“In addition, Riga was a ‘new’ destination for many,” she mentioned.
Silja Tallink might arrange cruises to Riga again next summer, though nothing has been decided yet. Kallio doubts, however, that a permanent connection between Helsinki and Riga by water would make financial sense.
The cruise ferries might mainly be known for shopping, karaoke bars, restaurants, spas and live music, but a huge part of the money actually comes from cargo. Helsinki-Riga is not in demand among lorry drivers, who rather follow the Via Baltica on their trips 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 going so often for business, he might very well go to Latvia to do some booze shopping, especially if some big party was coming up, he deemed.
In the third and southernmost Baltic country, Lithuania, booze is even cheaper with prices just below the EU average. Nevertheless, Sami would not go there just for shopping. “It’s too far away.”
Sami hasn’t counted how much he has saved by buying alcohol in the Baltics. “It depends on my beer consumption, but hardly much more than a hundred euros a year,” he said and added: “And then, of course, there is a risk that my consumption grows, when a box of beer is waiting in the corner.”