The international organization for sustainable destination development and recognition, Green Destinations, recognized Saare County with a silver label award for the sustainable development of the area. Green Destinations quality award shows that the way of life takes the environment more into account: local traditions and heritage are valued, the local community is respected and mass tourism is avoided. All activities are as environmentally, climate- and nature-friendly as possible.
In 2020, Saaremaa was also chosen as the laureate of a sustainable travel destination in the Baltic Sea. In the same year, Saaremaa also received the title of sustainable destination at the largest Nordic tourism fair, MATKA, held in Finland.
There is more and more talk about sustainable tourism. But what makes a destination sustainable? This is a broader concept than just reducing emissions and sorting waste. We will introduce it to you on the example of Saaremaa and its islands.
Saaremaa, together with other West Estonian islands, belongs to the UNESCO biosphere program area “Man and the Biosphere.” The living environment that has been preserved for centuries, the unique traditions, and the hard-working and humorous people here have received special recognition precisely because they have been able to live in harmony with nature. There is one national park here - Vilsandi National Park, which is located in the oldest protected area in the Baltics. In addition, there are many nature reserves and nature parks, nearly twenty protected parks, and a few dozen nature and hiking trails. There are a total of 38 flowering orchid species in Estonia; 36 of them grow in Saaremaa. That is why Lääne-Saaremaa (West-Saaremaa) is popular among flower enthusiasts, especially in spring. For birdwatchers, Saaremaa is a paradise because in autumn and spring, birds fly through it on their migration route.
Local transport also has a shrinking ecological footprint. One of the two ferries that run between Muhumaa and the mainland is a hybrid ferry. This will reduce diesel fuel by an estimated 20% and CO2 emissions by 1,600 tonnes. In addition, the amount of underwater noise and vibration is reduced, and it creates a better living environment for seals and fish. County buses are free here for everyone, including tourists, and 80% of these buses run on CNG.
It is convenient to explore the local islands by bicycle. The flat terrain is favorable for this, and the traffic density on the roads is sparse, which makes them also ideal for cycling. There is almost 30 km of bicycle paths in the vicinity of Kuressaare, and you can also rent a bicycle on site.
The forest and the sea play an important role in the diet of the islanders. It is also appreciated by local restaurants. The food of many cafes and restaurants comes from local farms; often, the name of the farm where the raw materials come from is also indicated in the menu. The fish caught in the morning is on the menu of the local restaurant for lunch. The good quality and skillful use of raw materials are also visible farther away. Did you know that almost ten percent of the best restaurants in Estonia are located in Saaremaa and Muhu? That is the case, according to the recognition issued by the White Guide.
Local products and services of Saaremaa and Muhu are recognized by the “Ehtne” (Authentic) sign. It is a local, regional label that guarantees that the product is wholly or largely produced and/or grown on the local islands. You can find authentic products in both larger and smaller stores, on the web, and also in the Ehtne Representative Store in the Auriga shopping center in Kuressaare.
Islanders also think about the environment when organizing festivals. The most exemplary in this is the experience festival I Land Sound. At the 2019 festival, ceramic utensils were used instead of plastic utensils, the festival sign was made of industrial scrap, garbage was sorted on-site, cigarette butts were collected separately, and in 2020, a SUP table was made from these cigarette butts. Through various activities, the festival raises awareness about environmental protection. These are just a few examples. Other festivals are also gradually replacing plastic dishes with sustainable dishes. Within the framework of Kuressaare Street Picnic, people have been invited to use ceramic and glass dishes.
In addition to nature, the islanders also have their own traditions. At more festive events, islanders still love to wear colorful folk costumes. For centuries, home-brewed beer has been made, and bread has been baked in homes, and these recipes are passed down to future generations. Saaremaa is historically known for its medicinal mud, and even now, it is possible to buy local mud and pamper your skin and body at home. Local young people who decide to learn from their parents and become fishermen contribute to the sustainability of the fishing traditions. In this way, you can enjoy smoked fish in Saaremaa and Muhu from early spring to late autumn, and fresh fish is also listed as a catch of the day in the menu of several restaurants. The traditional local material is the reed. Even today, you can see houses with reed roofs while driving around older villages, but young and entrepreneurial islanders have discovered reed as an alternative material for making drinking straws. As a result, several young families on the island have started a sustainable and environmentally friendly business.
As mentioned, the reed is a traditional material in a new key. Juniper is used to make traditional souvenirs, but syrups, soaps, and gin are also made. The circular economy is important, and the local beverage producer decided and gave new life to the Christmas trees in the city center. The tonic was first produced from the Christmas tree in the center of Kuressaare, now the branches and thorns of the Christmas trees in Pärnu, Loviisa, and Helsinki have also been collected and turned into a tonic. Local healthy birch sap is also bottled here, and more than half of the packaging is made of plant material, including cork made from sugar cane. Algae, or furcellaria, is also valued on the island and is later used, for example, in the cosmetics and food industries. These are just a few examples. There is plenty of sustainable innovation on the island.
What a story. Come to us!
- Don’t toss trash on the ground; just throw it in the trash bin. If possible, sort it accordingly. If you see trash on the ground, pick it up if possible and take it to the trash bin.
- When going on a trip, bring your own drink bottle with you, which you can refill throughout the trip. Tap water is drinkable in Saare County. Avoid buying bottled water.
- Prefer public transport or cycling. Measure the size of your ecological footprint spent on travel.
- Instead of plastic bags, use reusable bags made of fabric or paper.
- When buying souvenirs, choose local produce.
- When walking in bogs and nature trails, follow the prescribed path.
- Dine at local restaurants and cafes, shop at local shops and markets, avoid global foreign companies.
- Prefer digital (information) materials to paper.
- Prefer local services and service providers: tour guides and tour operators.
- Before buying a new piece of furniture or clothing, consider going to an antique or recycling store. There are many exciting finds with history and stories.
- At the destination, find out from locals where they would recommend going and what to discover.
- Follow the on-site recommendations at the property: use towels several times, if possible, do not ask them to be changed daily, do not leave the water running while brushing your teeth, if possible, also sort the trash in the hotel room, etc.
- When preparing for a trip, pack as few things as possible and as many things as necessary.
- Do not print hotel reservations, bus, and plane tickets unless otherwise requested; instead, download tickets and booking confirmations to your smartphone.
- Plan your trip. Stay at one destination for longer (e.g. for a week).
P.S. Recommendations for a sustainable holiday in Estonia can be found from the Green Traveller page.