Daytime temperatures have dropped to -12 ° C and there is snow on the streets of Rovaniemi, the capital of Finnish Lapland.
Fairy lights are flashing, hotel staff are back at their posts, restaurant kitchens are ready, and snowmobiles are ready for action.
What they are waiting for now is for the tourists to arrive.
This part of Finland relies heavily on seasonal visitors during winter, and particularly in the weeks leading up to Christmas, when more than a dozen charter flights a day can land at the city’s small Arctic Circle airport, bringing tourists from all over Europe for day trips to the winter wonderland.
Travel restrictions from last year’s COVID pandemic and blockades decimated the economy here, and the number of tourists from outside of Finland plummeted by 98% compared to the previous year.
Now, with coronavirus infections on the rise in Europe, there are concerns that this year it could affect the local economy as well.
But there is also cautious optimism.
“It seems positive at the moment, but of course there are threats and concerns in Europe,” says Sanna Kärkkäinen, CEO of Visit Rovaniemi’s tourism promotion board.
“There is a great possibility that something will happen, of course, with the European market, as we continue to hear now from Austria and Germany, and also from other countries with increasing numbers of infections that have the possibility of having more restrictions.
“That could affect our winter season or even the Christmas season. There are many question marks. “
Tourism chiefs and business owners alike fear that if there are further delays on the road to recovery, the businesses that managed to survive the pandemic would not last a second year in a row without international tourists.
Still, the estimate for this year is that inbound tourism figures will reach 70% of the pre-pandemic 2019 figures, which were already a record, with the main markets for charter flights to Rovaniemi, in Germany, the Netherlands. and the UK, looking healthy at this point.
And the most recent projections suggest that Lapland will fully recover from the pandemic in terms of its tourism economy by 2023, a year before the first projections made in spring.
Business owners watching Europe’s covid numbers closely
For many local businesses that rely so heavily on winter vacationers, winter 2021/22 will be a defining season.
Lapland Safaris caters to the outdoor adventure market, an increasingly important sector within the travel industry. Husky and reindeer sleigh rides, ice fishing and snowmobile safaris are offered, as well as cultural and culinary experiences, and gazing up at the sky under the spectacular Northern Lights.
“We have a lot more hope right now, the demand seems to be there and we are getting bookings, and tour operators are getting bookings quite well,” says Rami Korhonen, COO of Lapland Safari.
There has been great interest from the UK, its largest market, but also from the Benelux countries, France, Spain, Italy and Germany, even as the number of coronaviruses increases and new restrictions are being implemented in some areas. .
“Of course it is a concern if there is a total lockdown. It means that people cannot travel even if they are fully vaccinated, and so it is a great success for us. Hopefully fully vaccinated people can travel this winter, it’s really crucial for us.
“We lost 95% of the business last season and basically the last 20 months have been like this. If we lose this season, I think we will lose practically all business in Lapland, so we have to get some clients. “
A positive aspect has been the domestic tourism market, which grew by 13% in December 2020, as Finns, unable to take off to sunbathe in winter or ski in the Alps, headed north to discover the options of vacation in your own country. And direct international flight connections to Rovaniemi from London, Paris, Dusseldorf, Milan and Istanbul are poised to open up more growth opportunities.
The new normal for holiday tourists
Traditionally, in the run-up to Christmas, it is families who have flocked to Rovaniemi from all over Europe, with peak hours coming when school holidays begin.
The excitement of meeting Santa Claus is clearly the main draw of a visit to Lapland, and children of all ages can meet him in two places: the original Santa Claus Village with its log cabins and an elf-run post office. , established in the 1980s.; and the newest SantaPark in an underground cavern with freshly baked gingerbread cookies, a little train ride, and even more elves.
However, due to the pandemic, there is no chance that children will sit on Santa’s lap this year.
“It’s a serious question! Santa belongs to a high-risk group due to his age, ”explains Sanna Kärkkäinen from Visit Rovaniemi.
“He’s fully vaccinated, of course, and he’s sitting behind Plexiglas and everyone’s wearing a mask.”
The children will have to sit on a bench to ensure social distancing, and the cameras are angled so that official images do not show the Plexiglass between the children and Santa.
“The timing is, of course, very magical anyway.”
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