Daytime temperatures have dropped to -12 ° C and there is snow on the streets of Rovaniemi, the capital of Finnish Lapland.
Fairy lights twinkle, hotel staff are back at their posts, restaurant kitchens prepared and snowmobiles ready for action.
What they are waiting for now is for the tourists to arrive.
This part of Finland relies heavily on seasonal visitors in the 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 winter wonderland.
Travel restrictions and lockdowns linked to last year’s COVID pandemic have decimated the economy here, with the number of tourists outside Finland plummeting 98% from the previous year.
Now, with coronavirus infections on the rise across Europe, one wonders if that could also impact the local economy this year.
But there is also cautious optimism.
“It looks positive at the moment, but of course there are threats and concerns in Europe,” says Sanna Kärkkäinen, general manager of the Visit Rovaniemi tourism promotion committee.
“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, as well as other countries with an increasing number of infections which have the possibility of having new restrictions.
“It could hit our winter season or even the Christmas season. There are a lot of question marks.”
Tourism chiefs and business owners fear that if there was another delay on the road to recovery, the businesses that managed to survive during the pandemic would not last a second year in a row without international tourists.
Still, the estimate for this year is that the number of inbound tourists will reach 70% of the pre-pandemic figures of 2019, which were already a record high, with the main markets for charter flights to Rovaniemi – in Germany, the Netherlands and in UK – looking healthy at this point.
And the most recent projections indicate that Lapland will fully recover from the pandemic in terms of tourism economy by 2023, a year before the first projections made in the spring.
Business owners are watching covid numbers in Europe closely
For many local businesses that rely so heavily on winter vacationers, winter 2021/22 will be a defining season.
Lapland Safaris addresses the outdoor adventure market, an increasingly important sector in the travel industry. Dog and reindeer sled rides, ice fishing and snowmobile safaris are offered, as well as cultural and culinary experiences and sky-viewing under the spectacular Northern Lights.
“We’re a lot more optimistic right now, the demand seems to be there and we are getting reservations, and tour operators are getting reservations pretty well,” said Rami Korhonen, COO of Lapland Safari.
The UK, their largest market, has attracted great interest, but so have the Benelux countries, France, Spain, Italy and Germany – even as the number of coronaviruses rises and new restrictions are in place in some areas.
“Of course, it’s a concern if there is a total lockdown. This means that people cannot travel even if they are fully vaccinated, and then it is a great success for us. Hopefully fully vaccinated people can travel this winter, this is really crucial for us.
“We lost 95% of our turnover last season and the last 20 months have been like that. If we lose this season I think we will lose pretty much all the business in Lapland so we have to get customers. “
One bright spot was the domestic tourism market which grew 13% in December 2020 as Finns, unable to soar for the winter sun or ski the Alps, headed north to find out. vacation options in their own country. And direct international air links to Rovaniemi from London, Paris, Düsseldorf, Milan and Istanbul should open up more growth opportunities.
The new standard for Christmas tourists
Traditionally as Christmas approaches, it is families that have flocked to Rovaniemi from all over Europe – with peak periods coming at the start of the school holidays.
The thrill of meeting Santa Claus is clearly the main draw of a visit to Lapland, and children of all ages can meet him at two locations: the original Santa Claus Village with its wooden cabins and a post office run by elves, created in the 1980s; and the new SantaPark in an underground cave with fresh gingerbread cookies, a short train ride, and more elves.
Due to the pandemic, however, there is no chance for children to sit on Santa’s lap this year.
“This is a serious question! Santa Claus belongs to a high risk group because of his age, ”explains Sanna Kärkkäinen of Visit Rovaniemi.
“He’s of course fully vaccinated, and he’s sitting behind plexiglass and everyone is wearing a mask.”
Children will have to sit on a bench to ensure social distancing, and the cameras are tilted so that official photos do not show the plexiglass between the children and Santa Claus.
“The timing is of course very magical anyway. “
Every weekday at 7 p.m. CET, Uncovering Europe brings you a European story that goes beyond the headlines. Download the Euronews app to receive a daily alert for this and other last minute notifications. It is available on both Apple and Android devices.