E-Stonia

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(Image: cfarivar, Creative Commons)

The Baltic nation made a name for itself in recent years as a cheap place for Europeans to party. Tourism, in fact, has played a major role in Estonia's post-Soviet economic growth, but the global economic downturn has put a stop to that.

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Cyrus Farivar is the author of a forthcoming book called "The Internet of Elsewhere." The book includes a chapter on Estonia, or "E-stonia" as the country's been dubbed. He explains the current situation: "Prices in Estonia have gone up. Getting a cheap flight into Estonia, getting a cheap hotel room, cheap beer and so forth, it's just not the place that it was four or five years ago.

"Estonia is a country that I think a lot of people in Europe and in North America aren't very aware of its technological prowess. In fact, right now I'm speaking to you over a piece of Estonian technology, Skype -- which many people use to make free phone calls over the Internet. And that's a product of Estonian engineering. And many businesses in Estonia frequently make use of Skype as a way to make free calls over the Internet – not only to call within the country, but to their colleagues and business partners abroad."

Farivar explains how some hotels in Tallinn are actually using Skype to get visitors in: "Right. So there's a fairly new hotel in the capital city, Tallinn, called the Nordic Hotel Forum. And this is a hotel that is using free Skype phones in the hotel rooms themselves as a way to get people to come to the hotel. So now you can get Skype phones, Skype handsets, in those hotel rooms that allow you to call any of your friends without using a computer, for free.

"For now, this is just the first hotel in Estonia that's done this. I had a chance to speak with Feliks Magus, who is the Chairman of the Estonian Hotel and Restaurant Association, and he said that while that hotel, the Nordic Hotel Forum in Tallinn, is the first to do it, I think other hotels now are starting to look and seeing if that could make a difference."

As for other technologies that could be harnessed to help Estonia's economy right now, Farivar says: "Well, I think one thing that Estonia has been trying to push forward is the use of mobile technology. Mobile phones in Estonia are in much higher use than landlines. You have to remember, again, when Estonia came out of the Soviet Union in 1991, there were very few landlines in the country. As the country itself developed in parallel with mobile phone technology, more and more people have mobile phones. Some people have two, sometimes three cell phones. And as a result, people in Estonia are used to using their mobile phones to do everyday things that in the US or in Europe, we would never even think of doing. For example, it's very common in Estonia to pay for your parking meter with your cell phone. You just take out your phone, type in a little code, you send money directly, electronically from your bank account to that parking meter – not a problem. In the US, where I live in California most of the time, you have to remember to keep quarters with you and so on. I think people are waiting for more of these types of services."

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