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Not your typical Hong Kong tourists: Estonian farm stay brings cultural exchange and broader perspectives

Fresh insights recalled after visit to sparsely populated European country

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 November, 2017, 5:31pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 November, 2017, 5:34pm

Staff from one of Hong Kong’s top tour companies worked on a farm in northern Europe to learn from local residents as part of its 60th anniversary initiative to challenge personal horizons.

Lotus Tours, established in 1957, sent 10 staff who volunteered to live and work on Kiidi Farm in southern Estonia for one week in August. As part of the firm’s anniversary theme of a “Brave new world” they swapped insights with Estonians about their respective cultures. Many locals had never before met a Hongkonger.

Lotus Tours general manager Keller Mak described the trip as a “good opportunity to encourage our staff to step out of their comfort zone and embrace what life has to offer”.

Now five years with the company, Mak observed: “Sometimes we just get too used to what we have and seldom look or go beyond our preset boundary and routine.”

With a population of about 1.3 million in an area spanning over 45,000 square kilometres – about half of which is forest – Estonia’s population density is about 28 people per square kilometre. In contrast, Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated areas on the planet. The city counts 7.3 million people in an area smaller than 3,000 square kilometres, or about 7,000 people per square kilometre.

The trip was meant to give staff a chance to gain different perspectives and explore other cultures beyond their usual daily boundaries and norms.

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While staying on the farm, the team learned about logging, or cutting trees for sale, in a country that claims to be the birthplace of the Christmas tree. They also learned how to use manual tools, conserve the environment, develop sustainable tourism and even perform elementary Estonian folk dance.

In turn, the Hongkongers taught local children how to write Chinese calligraphy, and cooked signature local dishes to be eaten with chopsticks.

A novel travel experience can challenge our mindset, our predetermined thoughts and reactions
Keller Mak, Lotus Tours

Participant Edward Tam recalled that “everyone had a good laugh and they got to keep the chopsticks as a gift”.

“In Hong Kong we are so used to all the nice things in life, such as air-conditioning and hot water. All we have to do is press a switch,” he said. “At Kiidi Farm, we had to settle for the basics and work for what we wanted. Water has to be boiled if you want to run a hot bath, and wood has to be chopped if you want to boil water.”

Such lessons were what the company had sought, Mak said, noting team trips could entail much more than relaxation and luxury.

“A novel travel experience can challenge our mindset, our predetermined thoughts and reactions.”

But Tam hastened to note Estonia was not less fortunate than Hong Kong. The country borders Russia and is much more technologically advanced than many developed nations. In 2000, its government created a law making internet access a basic human right. And Estonia, boasting one of the world’s fastest Wi-fi connections, was the first country to permit online election voting.

Tam thought the experience helped build an appreciation of other cultures and helped participants look at life from a different perspective.

“Locals see they have a responsibility to conserve the environment, preserve history and culture, and put little emphasis on material and superficial items,” he said.

Not only did the 10 volunteers get to know one another better, but the Estonians they met gained “a better idea of what Hongkongers are like”. Tam added he would not hesitate to go back.