Santa Claus, his toy bags emptied, turns his sleigh toward home and heads to -- Norway? Finland? Sweden? Denmark? Nordic countries, where reindeer roam the snow-covered wilds in winter, are battling to be Santa's official homeland in a bid to lure tourists and tap the season's spending. Christmas outlays in seven of Europe's largest economies is forecast at 933 euros (US$957) per household while the average American will spend US$1,236, according to Deloitte & Touche.
Finns say Santa lives in a cave in Rovaniemi, northern Finland, while Swedes claim his home is at the foot of a hill in Mora, central Sweden. Norwegians argue he has a house in Drobak, a town south of Oslo, and Danes believe he lives in a castle in northeastern Greenland.
A hero to children around the globe, Santa is a valuable trademark. "There are a lot of Santas out there and competition is fierce," said Lisa Johansen at the Santa Claus of Greenland organization. "Santa is a fantastic intermediary. People recognize him and he stands for something honest." The focus so far has been on tourism. Now, Finland is betting Santa can help spur sales of its wares. A Santa Claus Foundation, owned by member companies, has tripled partners to 57 in two years as businesses seek to generate sales by putting a common Santa logo on their products.
"We can help business in Finland by promoting Santa as a Finnish phenomenon," said Matti Lipponen, managing director and co-founder of the foundation. Companies will start exporting Santa-branded products in 2004, which will "increase employment and exports," he said.
While there are no statistics on sales of products bearing the logo, Saarioinen, a closely held Finnish food retailer, found in a survey that 90 percent of shoppers picked a Santa-branded product over the same item without a brand, Lipponen said.
The smiling Santa currently adorns 70 different products in Finland, from chocolate made by Cloetta Fazer AB to ferries operated by Silja Oyj. Other members of the foundation include phone company Sonera Oyj, which merged with Sweden's Telia this year, airline Finnair Oyj and bank Nordea AB.
"It's a way to promote travel to Finland," said Ida Toikka-Everi, marketing manager at Silja, which has been a member since the start. "It gives Silja a positive label." Even as threats of terrorism and war weigh on the travel industry, theme parks from SantaPark in Rovaniemi to Santaworld in Mora are expecting more visitors this year. They each promise a meeting with the "real" Santa.
"It's exactly the type of experience people are looking for in a world that's increasingly perceived as dangerous," said Camilla Collet, chief executive officer of Santaworld.
Rovaniemi, located inside the Arctic Circle, attracts about 500,000 tourists a year. At SantaPark, a partly government-funded attraction that opened in 1998, visitors can sample attractions such as a Rudolph-driven roller coaster or enroll in Elf School.
Rovaniemi's Santa Claus Village also includes a reindeer park and a post office that gets as many as 700,000 letters a year.
About 200 charter flights, mostly from the UK, will arrive in Rovaniemi this Christmas season, 20 percent more than last year, bringing at least 60,000 tourists.
"We were worried about the effects of terrorism but we can now see that this year is going to be a record," said Leena Takalo at the Rovaniemi tourist office.
Sweden's Santaworld draws about 15,000 visitors from the last week of November to the first week of January. In Norway, the Christmas House in Drobak attracts 200,000 people a year.
Sweden's tourism industry generates about US$14 billion a year, while the tally in Finland amounts to about half that. In Norway, tourism is a US$11 billion industry.
Santa, with aliases ranging from Pere Noel in France to Shengdan Laoren (聖誕老人) in China, never set foot in Scandinavia.
The character stems from Saint Nicholas, a 4th century bishop in Myra in Anatolia, today's Turkey. Legends of his generosity grew after sailors in the 11th century stole his remains and took them to Bari in Italy, and Saint Nicholas was incorporated into Christmas celebrations. His relics remain in the basilica of San Nicola in Bari.
The Dutch, who call their Santa figure Sinterklaas, took their custom to the US in the 17th century when they settled in New Amsterdam, now New York. Sinterklaas became Santa Claus.
"It seems silly to profile yourself" as part of Santa's homeland, said Stefan Oestroem, chief executive of Sweden's Paradiset DDB advertising agency. "He doesn't exist so it's not trustworthy." The Santa Claus Foundation disagrees.
"By branding products, we can increase our credibility" as Santa's homeland, Lipponen said. "The more companies that use the logo, the more everyone can benefit." The Finnish foundation, which estimates some 20 million products display its Santa logo, gets 17,000 euros from each member and royalties from sales of Santa-branded wares.
* Even as threats of terrorism and war weigh on the travel industry, Finnish theme parks from SantaPark in Rovaniemi to Santaworld in Mora are expecting more visitors this year. They each promise a meeting with the ``real'' Santa.
* A Finnish foundation, which estimates some 20 million products display its Santa logo, gets 17,000 euros from each member and royalties from sales of Santa-branded wares.
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