Sustainable Rural Cultural Food Tourism in Kihnu Island, Estonia: a Bite of the Local Life

Theme: Rural Cultural Food Tourism

by Ms. Siyun Wu
HeritageForAll Intern (Call 2019) from Beijing, China and lives in Leiden, Netherlands
Internship Program “Rural Heritage and Traditional Food”
PhD candidate in the Music Heritage and Citizenship in Estonia, Leiden University



With the enlistment as a cultural space on the list of Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2003, the island of Kihnu in Estonia has increasingly been depicted and known as a destination where picturesque landscape and unique local traditions and lifestyle are well preserved and kept alive, attracting visitors from all around the country and the world. Among the influences it brings to many aspects of the local society, tourism development booms the heritage-making of rural food and food traditions as well as the local entrepreneurship on providing various rural food products and culinary experiences. Investigating the rural cultural food tourism on Kihnu, this paper looks into the local strategies Kihnu people are taking and the challenges they are facing on achieving sustainable development.

Becoming Heritage, Becoming Destination

Off the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea, in the Gulf of Riga, a small Estonian island Kihnu is home to a community with about 400 year-round residents (701 registered population in 2019). Resulting from the island’s geographic isolation and the strict control on accessibility to the island for non-Kihnu islanders during the Soviet time, the Kihnu community has been able to maintain its livelihood with men going out to sea fishing, hunting seal and seafaring, while women farming, herding and maintaining households (Leesment, 1942; Kalits, 1963 in Parts & Sepp, 2007). After regaining its independence in 1991, Estonia advances rapidly in its modernization, urbanization and different processes on economic, socio-cultural development while embracing freely to the global influences and binding closely with Europe again. Under the depiction which is not without romantic imagination, from earlier folklorists and intellectuals who had the chance to visit the island, as well as the comparison with the daily-changing mainland, the island of Kihnu with its picturesque natural landscape, rural architecture, distinct communal lifestyle and a rich variety of cultural expressions, becomes known as a living example of the disappearing Estonian past. In 2003, as “a unique depository of traditional culture” (Kuutma, 2003), Kihnu Cultural Space (including Kihnu and the small Manija island where Kihnu culture expanded to later) got listed in the UNESCO List of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

While becoming a representative national heritage, Kihnu has also increasingly become a popular tourist destination for not only Estonian domestic visitors but also tourists with different interests worldwide. In the description for its heritage nomination (Kuutma 2003) and in the introduction of the island from Kihnu museum and from the Kihnu Travel Wheel (visitkihnu 2019), an official guide developed by local cultural leaders and tourism entrepreneurs and adopted widely by the locals and tourist publications, the uniqueness and originality of Kihnu lies in the natural environment, the community’s communal lifestyle and variety of kept alive livelihood practices and traditional cultural expressions, most distinguishingly the local language, traditional singing, instrumental music and dancing, marine skills and naive art, traditional costumes worn in daily basis and handicraft skills, folk calendar festivities and wedding traditions. Kihnu’s impressive landscape of ocean and forest, tranquil rural and island environment, as well as its unique traditional culture and organic lifestyle, attract and become the favorite depicting themes for many photographers, travel writers and programs, artists, documentary-makers and academics, me included (see i.e. MishkovI, 2016; Brown & Weiss, 2018; Jung, 2019). The environment and cultural experiences are in hands also become the most enchanting attractions for leisure tourists and “selling points” in the tourist market. Today, Kihnu is attracting many urban Estonians and visitors from most noticeably Finland, German, Latvia, Russia, England and Japan. As a small island in the small country of Estonia, it’s one of the most popular destinations with more than a half of hundred ships and 2000 visitor in 2018 (Keskküla, 2019). During my visits [1] and according to local tour companies, visitors to the island come usually in couple or family or small groups (lower than 6). Organized events groups (i.e. workshop, festival, culture camp) and big tour groups (can vary from 10 to 50 people) are mostly in the summers. As described to me by Kihnu locals, people visiting the island are mostly “interested in Kihnu tradition and culture and nature and peace on the island” or coming here simply to have some rest or spend some time with the family, enjoying nature while seeing the local life and culture. As much as the making of Kihnu as a cultural heritage space being a process of metacultural production (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, 2004), Kihnu’s growth to a tourist destination (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, 1998) of heritage and cultural experiences is produced and reproduced by multiple forces within a complex and fluid network power relations: discourses, policies and projects surrounding heritage preservation and sustainable development, gazes, demands and impact from various types of visitors and tourists, as well as the interpretation, display, promotion from the active citizens of Kihnu. Different interests and needs are constantly interacting, shaping and negotiating with each other. And food is one of the many fields that mirrors the meta-production process of heritage, tourism and the rural community of Kihnu.

Although not as outstanding as other aspects in the current image about Kihnu as a heritage space, food is still essential in the island’s tourism infrastructure and economic development. It is also an inseparable part of the heritage and tourist experience of the island as a whole. Moreover, as the development of Kihnu as a heritage space and as a tourist destination grows, the construction of Kihnu food heritage and development of cultural food tourism also strives on the island. Drawing from my ethnographic fieldwork on the island on the summers of 2018 and 2019, the following part of this article will look into the development of food tourism on the island just within one year of time as well as some challenges and concerns the local community are facing and having.

(Screenshot of, an official tourist website found and run by local Kihnu residents, 2019)

A Bite of the Kihnu Food, A Taste of the Kihnu Life

The growing fame of Kihnu and increasing amount of visitors with different interests and from different countries have brought and continued to call for development of tourism and service industry on the island. And in the case of Kihnu, besides the improvement of public infrastructure, the tourism development impacts very directly to the living conditions and everyday life of Kihnu residents, from their home and land to their food and drinks.

Catering industry and food tourism in growth

Had been a relatively exclusive island until recent years, Kihnu did not have convenient transportation, sufficient accommodation and catering services for visitors like today . Facing the growing interests and needs from visitors, besides the employment increase from the expanding local public services, cultural institutes and foundations and existing local companies, most note-worthily, many Kihnu locals set up their own businesses. Common among them are travel company, traditional folk singing and dancing concert, at home or online handicraft shop, as well as another two essential sectors: accommodation and catering.

Comparing with many bigger and known resort islands like Ibiza in Spain, Langkawi in Malaysia, and the largest island Saaremaa nearby in Estonia, food tourism on Kihnu are still relatively new and limited but has its own developing pattern and unique taste. Kihnu is still more of an island where people are building their lives with a routine of growing or buying and making their own food and occasions where limitation of food supply and variety of food materials can happen. When tourism started to boom around the same time when Kihnu became a Heritage space at the beginning of 21st century, many locals strive their businesses with homemade food products and from offering home dining in their own home-stays, which is still the most common and also the only available way of accommodation on the island for individual and small group visitors who are looking for a roof instead of camping on one’s own tents in the wild land. With many visitors interested in the sense of natural and the special “authentic” rural heritage experience on the island, although partly resulted from the limitation and underdevelopment of catering industry, the local homemade food and home dining experiences provided by the locals turn out to be more favorable and well received by the visitors.

(Home restaurant Kihnu Kitchen, Kihnukyek, 2019)

In addition to the home restaurants, more dining options are also springing on the island. During the summer of 2019, I am amazed by the growth in scale and variety of food and dining service just within one year of time after my first visit. Besides from the two groceries that have been supplying substantial and commercial food products from the mainland, today, there are restaurants, farm house, cafe and bar and different pop-up eateries producing a rich collection of local food specialties and providing various types of culinary experiences around the island. While home restaurant (i.e. Kihnu Kitchen, Kihnu Gurmee) and home dining at home-stays require advanced bookings, there are dining places (i.e. Kurase bar; Aru Grill, Rock City and Metsamaa Nuõrdõkohvik, Kihnu Virve Puhvet opened in 2019 summer) run regularly during the tourist season. Some open part-time (i.e. Sõõriku kohvik Kihnus) and organize or participant occasionally at events and festivals (i.e. Kihnu Cafe Day). There are also farms, companies and individuals making homemade specialties according to availability of materials and themselves. To give some examples, there are Pärnamäe talu specialize on bread, fisherman Rannametsa Valdo of Sadama home-stay for fish snack, Elly Karjam of Elly Kodumajutus Kihnus for ice-cream, and Rooslaiu farm famous for their bread, smoked fish and homecraft beer. All these eateries, particularly the Metsamaa cafe opened in the south part this year, making it possible for visitors to have a place to rest and refresh with some local food and drinks only at the center but around the island. They also offer different kinds of food ranging from local Kihnu specialties to food that are suitable for the growing consumers with different special requirements (children, lactose free and vegetarian menus) and that can be commonly found in Estonia or around the global like pizza, pasta and burger, which expands the food choices for not only visitors but also generations of island residents.

(Pop up café Sõõrikud, photo by author, 2019)

For Kihnu people, tourism development partly means building their homeland and improving community neighborhood on their own hands, opening their homes, sharing their dining tables and food, part of their personal everyday life to the others. Behind the growth of food tourism on Kihnu, it’s the vigorous life spirit of Kihnu people, their strong heart, wisdom and creativity on caring their culture, traditions, homeland while trying to offer more and do better despite of many limits and difficulty in managing things on the island.

Sharing food, sharing life

Like their traditional folk singing and dancing, many marine and rural food traditions and customs are still alive on the island as part of Kihnu people’s everyday life. Obtaining many materials from the sea, the forest and their farming land, common on the Kihnu people’s kitchen are rye, potato, seasonal fish like herring, eel, white fish and garfish, berries, tomato, cucumber, meat and cheese and so on with the increasingly convenient transportation to more shops in the mainland. While wider range and more convenient options are available, many Kihnu people still make their own bread from scratch, catch and smoke fish with wood, harvest potato and vegetable from their own field and garden, and cook home-meals according to seasonal available materials in ways that have passed through generations or shared within the family. These household dishes Kihnu people know in hearts and made with their own hands become what they serve to visitors in their home-stays and what they put on the menus in farm, cafe and restaurant they open. When ones take a bite on the food made by the locals, they are tasting into the life ways, skills and knowledge Kihnu people keep alive from their ancestors and add with hard work and creativity of their own.

In one breakfast I had at Mare Mätas’s homestay, Mare introduced me to some usual food for Kihnu people. The first things Mare brought to me was porridge and bread, both the dark rye bread now known as Kihnu Leib and the white bread Kihnu Sai, along with butter, salty Baltic herring salad and fresh strawberry jam her family made from strawberries they picked together a few days earlier.

(Breakfast at Mare’s homestay, photo by author, 2018)

We eat the dark bread usually with butter. Try having them with some herring. We also made the salad ourselves. My husband caught the herrings and then we made it. During the season we would make a lot and store them in the fridge and storages for the winter. We do that with berries as well. And here is the jam we make. You can put some in the porridge. That’s how we usually eat porridge. Some like salty porridge then they put some butter and salt. But it’s more common to have porridge with jam in Kihnu. Traditionally we have porridge after holidays and celebrations or ceremonies in the church. But nowadays it’s usual to have it as breakfast too. White bread is traditionally more for celebration as well. We eat it with butter and jam. It’s like dessert.” (Conversation with Mare, June 2018)

Had made some meat pastry Lihapirukas and a curd cheese cake Kohupiimakook to use up the leftover strawberries for her own family at the same time, Mare also generously offered me some. “Have some! I will be very happy if you do. The meat balls and cake are traditionally festival food for us. We like sharing it with our guests. We deforested the meat and have the strawberries prepared to make something. So we have quite a lot. It’s not much more effort and if we don’t use up the material, it will be a waste anyway. I will take some to my families, some neighbor and friends too.”

Making and having food on Kihnu are like teamwork of families and even the whole community. And for visitors, taking a bite here can mean becoming a part of the team and sharing the communal life on the island. The relationship between the locals and the visitors is much more than the providers and consumers of service. Sometimes visitors would even need to “work for the service”, helping with getting ingredients and preparing the food. There are also occasions where visitors would want something in particular and yet that is not very common on the island or not written on the menu (in many cases, there’s no menu at all), for example fresh/smoked/salty dry fish or vegetarian/vegan meals. To provide that, people will need to find or gather things, by searching their storage or asking around the neighbors or even going to mainland or setting a fishing sail, before they can make things from scratch. And also because most people on the island are not working full time only at their home-stays or service provision, those extra services or inquiries from visitors are to some extend generous favors from the Kihnu people, who are in most of the time, would do try their best to provide.

Kihnu Food, Kihnu Heritage

Along with the development of tourism as a cultural heritage space, food and food traditions on the island are also actively being reinvented and produced as the local food and heritage of Kihnu, contributing further to the construction of localism and heritagization of Kihnu as a rural living heritage. When Kihnu people are making, introducing, sharing and selling any food and experiences, they could be named and become known and valued as Kihnu’s local specialties. And along with the history, knowledge and skill about the food as well as its current ways of production, consumption and distribution, the food and the dining experience are under an active process of construction as one part of the overall living heritage Kihnu holds and can provide.

Although dark rye bread leib is widely consumed around Estonia and there are varieties of receipts and baking methods in different regions in the south and islands area, homemade bread Kihnu people are making like generations of them have been are now distinctly introduced and known as Kihnu Leib (see more about Kihnu Leib in Wu, 2019). They are sold and consumed as souvenirs, as quality handmade products that preserve the local and Estonian tradition. Women making bread for her families become at the same time the bearers, practicers, creators, and promoters of Kihnu cultural heritage. Just like how Mare used the available materials as full as possible to make food for her family, while at the same time also made, shared and introduced the different traditionally daily and festive food for tourist guests like me, food tourism on Kihnu are closely bond with the practical needs of both the locals and visitors in face with the limited environment, as well as their growing economic and sociocultural interests on the surviving practices of food tradition. It’s the need, the benefits as well as the creativity people are putting in at the current that support and continue the transmission of food traditions from the past and recreate it into the future.

Challenges and Sustainable Development

Although tourism has been growing rapidly in recent years, it is not without challenges to achieve a sustainable development of food tourism that is in balance of the natural environment, heritage preservation, the interests of visitors, and the life improvement of the local community on Kihnu, as many heritage space and rural communities around the world.

Local specialty, economy and environment

Seafood and sea activities of fishing and seal hunting have been a very important part of the traditional lifestyle and local economy of Kihnu. Due to the environmental changes as well as the regulation on fishing and seal hunting, the main economic activity for Kihnu men has been declining and increasingly switching to fishing and construction elsewhere (commonly in the mainland and Scandinavian countries). Although fishing is reviving in recent years with the tourist development and the growing interest of the local traditional food, from fresh fish meals to fish snacks, “it is not the same anymore…. There are a few families still fishing (partly for living) but it’s harder day by day. Just some men do small fishing sometimes now. And mainly of them are getting quite old already”. Take the most favorable and well known Kihnu specialty smoked eel for example. According to a Kihnu man whom I came across when he was back to help with the family restaurant, there used to be a lot of eels in the summer and autumn times but not anymore.

For Kihnu men, nothing goes better than the fatty smoked eel when you have a drink. But there’s no much eel coming to Kihnu anymore. Many tourists don’t know that the smoked eel they have now are actually mostly wind fish. They look like eel but their bones are different and there’s less fat in their meat. The funny thing people from Pärnu and the mainland come here to buy smoked eel, but actually Kihnu people nowadays have most of their eels brought from fish farm in Parnu.” (Personal conversation, July 2019)

Getting more and more famous and demands as the local specialty, it is not clear that how Kihnu can balance the market’s interest on smoke eels, the need to preserve the traditions of fishing and smoked fish, as well as the need to adapt to and protect the environment.

Growth of variety, seasonal tourism and heritage sustainability

The employment and economic opportunities in growth also brings back many islanders, who previously have moved out or no longer have been living on the island full year round. Particularly for the young generation, many of whom have grown up with strong attachment to the island and the community yet have to be away for education, jobs, a possible better life for the next generation, now it is possible to build that better house, better life, better future at home.

It is always better to be on the island and be at home with the family. Now there are opportunities to be back, help with the business, renovate the house and earn actually no less than in the city.” (Personal conversation, June 2019)

Therefore, the island is facing a growing need of catering from not only the visitors but also the locals. Visitors from increasing different cultures are having various requests besides from Kihnu local specialties, the growing population of vegetarians and vegans, people might also need some food from their own culture for examples. More than that, there are stronger interests on different food from the locals, both the relatively older generations who has been living on the island for most of their life and the return locals who are more used to rich food options.

For most of the time I have to cook. Otherwise no food. But sometimes when I am tired, particularly in the summer when I have very intensive work day for the visitors, it is so much nicer if I don’t have to cook and can have a proper meal. Some real food in a restaurant. Not just something random, something I have them just as long as they are eatable. Like some salad on bread. A boil egg. … And it’s all the better if there is something different. There is not much on the island. There are some now come back and have some different things. Like the donut. I go every time when I can and have some. But it’s only sometimes. And in the winter, there is no restaurant, only my own restaurant are open. 24 hours every day.” (Private conversations, July 2019)

While food tourism and local food consumption are growing tightly hand and hand, the island is facing the rather battling needs of preservation of local food tradition as a prior resource for food tourism and the improvement of variety for both the tourists and the locals. Also can be seen from the above conversations I have with a year around resident who is working for a tourist points and running a home-stays herself, the whole tourism economy on the island, particularly the still rather underdeveloped food caterings, is highly seasonal.

Although giving some time for the locals to rest from the busy tourist season and for taking care of their home and land, doing works like preparing food storage and making handicrafts, which is also important for the community to maintain their traditions and unique lifestyle, the seasonal tourism is also leading many uncertainties and difficulties to a sustainable economic growth and improvement of local livelihood. Because the income is seasonal, people will need to seek and multiple jobs, which in turns leading to a seasonal stay on the island for the locals. Currently, many residents are living or working on the island during the summer seasons or weekends while still lead their life mainly on the mainland. Without a sustainable and overall improvement of livelihood, the local community and the cultural heritage are hard to continue transmitting and building their life on the island. And it is such preserved natural environment, living tradition and communal lifestyle consisting the most distinct uniqueness of Kihnu as a heritage space where the possibility of ongoing growth and prosperity of local tourism crucially lies. The sustainability of heritage and local livelihood development is the profound resource for , while in turn also increasingly depend on the sustainability of tourism on the island.


[1] Multiple visits in June, 2018 and from June to August, 2019.


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