By Konstantin Rozhnov
Business reporter, BBC News
Borders controls are scrapped in the Schengen area
A much-awaited expansion of the European Union's Schengen arrangement, which allows people to cross borders without having their passports checked, is cheered by tourists visiting from outside the EU.
The expansion will make it easier for them to travel within large parts of Europe, and thus it is also greeted warmly by tourism industry officials in old and new EU states alike.
The Schengen zone, which does not include the UK and Ireland, will be joined by nine countries on 21 December: Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Malta. Switzerland will follow suit in 2008, becoming the 25th Schengen state.
The expansion matters little to travellers from EU countries, since they can already travel freely within the EU.
Similarly, visitors from some other countries, including the US and Japan, have long been able to go on holidays within the EU without having visas.
But for tourists who need a visa to enter the EU, the changes are crucial, since they simplify travel within Europe.
In the past, these tourists would have needed separate visas for each country visited. From 21 December, they will be able to obtain a single visa that gives them access to 24 countries.
This will save them time and money, as they have to pay for any visa they get.
Tourism already accounts for some 4% of the EU's economy and is set to rise to 11% when links to other industries are taken into account, according to the European Commission.
And with Europe being the most visited tourist destination in the world (54% share in 2006), it wants to preserve its leading position.
No wonder Luigi Cabrini, World Tourist Organization (UNWTO) regional representative for Europe, believes that "an important issue for further discussion within the EU is the adoption of a visa policy, aimed at facilitating travel by citizens of third countries, especially taking into account the importance of tourists arriving from emerging markets like China, India and Russia".
In Estonia, this issue is particularly pertinent.
Visitor numbers from former Soviet republics, such as Ukraine, or from European countries that are not EU members are rising, and Russian tourists remain crucial for the country's tourism industry, says Piret Kallas, tourism research coordinator at the Estonian Tourist Board.
Tarmo Mutso, head of the Tourism Development Centre at Enterprise Estonia, agrees: "We are glad Estonia is joining the Schengen zone at the end of December, as many Russians are going to [the Estonian capital] Tallinn specifically for the winter holidays."
Travellers do not need a passport to go to another Schengen state
Russia's official statistics suggest that the new and old Schengen countries' tourist sectors can expect visitor numbers to rocket once it is easier for non-EU travellers to travel.
The number of Russians who chose to travel abroad during the first nine months of 2007 rose some 20% from a year ago to 7.2 million tourists, with visa-free Turkey and Egypt among the most visited destinations.
The number of Russians who visited Turkey during the period (1.7 million travellers) is not much smaller than the number of Russians who decided to go to all the 15 "old" Schengen states (more than 2 million travellers).
According to Russia's official data, Finland was the most popular EU country among Russians, and it looks as though the Estonian tourism authorities are preparing to rival its Nordic neighbour.
"Estonia is even closer to St Petersburg. And as our country joins the Schengen zone, St Petersburg residents who have a visa for Finland will be able to visit us without any problems," Mr Mutso observes, writing on VisitEstonia website.
Doubts and fears
There are those, though, who are not happy with the Schengen zone growing.
Some tourist companies warn that the number of visitors to the new Schengen countries may eventually slip, because of increased visa fees and a more complicated process of obtaining the visas.
"The European Union and Schengen zone are like a fortress, and the EU is rather picky when choosing who will get the 'exclusive' Schengen visas," says Miodrag Shrestha, head of Group 484, an organisation dealing with refugees and visas in Serbia.
Besides, the expansion of the Schengen area brings the abolition of borders between the old and new Schengen countries, making the new members' external borders the front line in fighting illegal immigration, terrorism and organised crime in all Schengen countries.
Despite the fact all the nine countries were declared ready to become new members of the Schengen zone, a fair amount of doubt still exists.
For example, a survey claims that more than half of Austrians are not happy that Austria's borders with Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia and the Czech Republic will be scrapped.
Sceptics point out that fewer borders in Europe make it easier for criminals to travel freely in Europe. Such uncertainty poses a threat to the health of parts of Europe's tourism industry, as travellers prefer to be sure nothing is going to happen to them while on holiday.
All the nine new Schengen countries joined the EU in 2004
But others are more optimistic.
When the EU was enlarged in 2004, with an additional 10 mostly Central and Eastern European countries joining, the influx of tourists into the EU rose 4.2%, with Central and Eastern Europe enjoying 11% growth in visitor numbers.
Nine of the newcomers are now new Schengen members, a move which many hope will have a similar trigger effect.