Between November and March, Finland’s far north usually throngs with international holidaymakers who visit to experience a snowy wonderland of reindeer rides, ice castles and the “real” Santa’s grotto.
However, despite record visitor numbers in the past few years, the COVID-19 shutdown would leave many of Finnish Lapland’s tourism businesses facing ruin this winter.
Many fear that government moves to ease travel restrictions in the Nordic country would not go far enough to offset the damage.
Tour operator Sini Jin said that her firm faces hard times if business does not pick up.
Jin has run Nordic Unique Travels for five years, offering northern lights safaris and expeditions into the Arctic wilderness to thousands of travelers from Europe and Asia every season.
“Now we’ve had one or two bookings a week, and mostly we’re just doing refunds,” Jin told reporters in Rovaniemi, an Arctic Circle town that markets itself as “the official hometown of Santa Claus.”
Her firm would only employ “two or three” seasonal staff this year instead of the normal 80.
Jin’s company received emergency financial aid after the Finnish government put aside more than 1 billion euros (US$1.18 billion) to help businesses.
A loan has come through that would see her firm through December, but the future is still precarious.
“Everything we’ve worked for will be gone so quickly if we don’t get help,” she said.
Her predicament is shared by tourist companies across Finland’s vast Lapland region, where the sector supports 10,000 jobs and generates 1 billion euros of annual revenue.
A tourist board survey found that without international visitors this winter, about 60 percent of tourism companies expect to lose at least half their turnover and three-quarters would have to lay off staff.
“We’re not hopeful of getting any significant bookings,” Husky Park managing director Kaj Erkkila told reporters.
The 10-person family firm has been a popular dogsledding destination for “many decades” and keeps 109 Siberian huskies.
“If this winter’s revenue stays low, we might not be able to operate in 2021-22 either, as maintaining the dogs is very expensive,” Erkkila said.
Tourist board head Nina Forsell said that the situation is make-or-break for many firms.
“If companies go down this winter, it will take a long time for them to rise up again,” she told reporters.
While many EU countries are tightening lockdown rules as COVID-19 infections rise, Finland’s center-left government last week eased travel restrictions to boost the tourism industry.
Yet the measures have been branded “a big disappointment” by industry bodies in Lapland, who have said the rules are unworkable.
Arrivals from countries such as the UK and France, which are among the largest visitor groups to Lapland, can avoid quarantine if they visit for fewer than three days and travel with an organized group.
However, tourism bosses have said that many trips to Lapland are longer — and these would require visitors to quarantine and undergo further testing.
“Are these measures enough to meet demand and keep businesses going here in Lapland? I’m not convinced,” Visit Rovaniemi head Sanna Karkkainen told reporters.
Tourist providers worked with health experts to draw up safety procedures, which they said should allow for quarantine rules to be relaxed.
Finland’s COVID-19 infection rates remained among Europe’s lowest over the summer. Of the 9,000 confirmed infections, just 243 have been recorded in Lapland.
“We’re not giving up and we’re trying to get the politicians to see there is a better way,” Forsell said.
Some large companies, such as Rovaniemi’s Santa Park attraction, have already decided not to open this winter.
The park usually employs 400 staff and welcomes 120,000 visitors each season.
However, many smaller providers have said they would do all they can to stay open for business and hope that the government would allow for more international visitors.
“We are dealing with the highest possible demand for Lapland travel, that’s the heartbreaking thing,” Sanna Karkkainen said. “We really need this industry in order to build a future for Lapland, and letting it go is not an option.”
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