Kristel Üksvärav: The story of the creation of the tourism cluster in a small island

Kristel Üksvärav is currently working as the head of the tourism cluster of Estonia’s second largest but still small island Hiiumaa. We asked how a woman who had previously worked in various positions in the capital city of Estonia, Tallinn, came to the realization that life on a small island is exactly what appeals to her.

Kristel, there is not much contact with tourism in your curricula?

My contact with tourism started in 1996 when I started as a tour guide and in 1997, I became the official guide of Tallinn. I had the tours in English, Swedish and Finnish. I did it until 2012 when my third child was born.

At the same time, in 1998, I started to work in Estonian National Broadcasting as editor of foreign news and since that I have worked in the field of media and public relations – editor of Tallinn City Council PR department, Head of Hansabank Group Internal Communication, Head of Marketing and Communication in Nordea Bank in Estonia, Head of Public Relations of Estonian Academy of Music and Theater and Estonian Ministry of Culture, advisor of international relations department. Additionally, during several summers I was media manager for Estonia’s biggest international folk music festival Viljandi Folk and for 13 years I have been the manager of my husband’s choir, Collegium Musicale.

You have had an impressive career in the capital, so how did you end up in tourism on a small island?

2020 was a turning point in the lives of many. Since Covid closed all events both in Estonia and abroad, concerts and trips were cancelled, we packed up all our things and moved to Hiiumaa, where my roots are. Yes, at first, I worked remotely in the ministry, but as time went on, it became more and more clear to me that life on a small island offers me exactly what I need at this stage of my life. Moreover, by that time I had already organized in Hiiumaa the Pühalepa music festival for 12 years, which, among other things, introduced some works by a local but internationally well-known Estonian composer Erkki-Sven Tüür. It became clear to me that I wanted to contribute more to local life – Hiiumaa is like a small model of Estonia. Life offered me a job in tourism. My task was to create a tourism cluster in the Hiiumaa development centre.

What were the main challenges in your new job?

The challenges in Hiiumaa are like those in tourism elsewhere: gaining the attention and trust of visitors, access, involvement of residents, the reputation of tourism as a business branch, and cooperation. There was no tourism budget in the local government. One must consider that the organization of larger events is limited by the lack of accommodation.

In a couple of years, you have got the tourism cluster working – you already have more than 40 members. What do you offer them?

Basically, we offer joint marketing, networking and information exchange. We have quite many seasonal events: Sõru Jazz, Hiiu Folk, Sound, Sparkling wine weekend, Pühalepa music festival, Hiiumaa home cafe days, Sauna bus party, Hiiu fish and beer festival, and sports competitions.

In order to extend the season, we organize a restaurant week in April and October. The tourism fair for local producers, which takes place in the speed-date format, greatly contributes to the exchange of information between people and networking. Hiiumaa’s literature festival, winter days of glög cafes and theme years help to extend the season even more.

Fortunately, the small island also has several larger places to organise events.

What advice would you give to other women facing a similar challenge?

If you ask a Hiiumaa local where does this road lead? Then you get the answer that this road leads nowhere, you still have to start going yourself.


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