Finland’s Santa Claus Village Welcomes Tourists ahead of Christmas

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Workers at Santa Claus Village, a Christmas theme park on the outskirts of the Arctic Circle, chiseled away at a frozen dome to finish an ice restaurant-hotel packed with sculptures of snowmen, penguins, and huskies. The Christmas season is now underway in Finnish Lapland, with venue operators reporting that tourist numbers have recovered to pre-pandemic levels. Tourists from all over Finland and the world flock to the enormous theme park to experience the festive spirit, ride a reindeer or husky sleigh, and, if they’re lucky, see the Northern Lights.

The omicron coronavirus variety has resulted in increased travel restrictions, testing requirements, and quarantine measures, so it’s unclear how long the winter fun will last.

“Of course, it’s a concern since no one knows what will happen,” Sanna Karkkainen, CEO of Visit Rovaniemi, the tourism authority for Finnish Lapland’s city, says. “There’s always the concern that we’ll have cancellations.”

The Covid-19 pandemic, as well as the ensuing lockdowns and travel restrictions, wreaked havoc on the tourist business in northern Finland. Prior to the epidemic, roughly 60% of Rovaniemi’s more than half-million yearly visitors came from outside the country, largely from Europe and Asia.

Last December, little over 11,000 visitors visited Rovaniemi, down 82 percent from the same month the previous year, according to Visit Rovaniemi. Many businesses consider this winter as a “changing point,” after surviving a dreadful 2020 “Karkkainen elaborated.

“They couldn’t possibly survive another year, another Christmas without clients,” she remarked.

Winter is the busiest tourist season in Finnish Lapland, and Air France and Eurowings just launched new direct flights from Paris and Dusseldorf, respectively, to Rovaniemi. Visitors made their way north this month, pleased to have gotten away after last year’s lockdowns, according to local merchants.

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“Tuomas Palmgren, co-owner of Rovaniemi transportation business Santa Line, stated, “I think the last week, last few days, have been busier than before.”

Stefanie and Mauro Sammut, newlyweds, chose to spend their honeymoon in Finnish Lapland, a far cry from their native Malta. Until they boarded their flight, the couple stated they were afraid the trip would be canceled.

As little children slid past the couple on sleighs at Santa Claus Village and families posed for photos next to a temperature sensor that read minus 14 degrees Celsius, Mauro Sammut joked, “Once the plane took off, we said, ‘OK, we’re alright” (6.8 degrees Fahrenheit).

SantaPark, a Lapland theme park housed in an abandoned air raid shelter, decided to lock its doors in March 2020, and only reopened this winter due to the pandemic keeping people away. Ilkka Lankinen, the park’s chief experience officer, recalls the emotional anguish of not knowing when they would return.

“We completely missed the Christmas season last year, “Standing at the park’s “Elf School,” where kids may learn how to be one of Santa’s trusted helpers, he remarked. “We attempted to open the hotel, but we were unsuccessful. So, SantaPark has been closed for the past two years.”

Laura and Anne Marie Spencer of Dublin, Ireland, had planned their trip to Lapland for December 2020. Because of the epidemic, they had to postpone their family vacation by a year.

“It wasn’t the only vacation we had to rebook,” Anne Marie Spencer explained, “but we were determined to get here.”

At the moment, there are no hugs with Father Christmas at Santa Claus Village because guests are separated from him by a plexiglass screen shaped like a gingerbread biscuit. Many businesses, including a restaurant in central Rovaniemi that debuted in August 2020, welcome returning visitors.

“Most people felt we were utterly insane for considering opening the restaurant in August when the situation was at its worst,” said Gustav Kitchen and Bar co-owner Elisa Honkavuori.

The restaurant’s cooks are now serving local and foreign visitors modern, Finnish-inspired dishes like rainbow fish and roasted potatoes with a caper butter sauce. However, Honkavuori is concerned that the uncertainties and new constraints brought on by the omicron variant may make people “feel that traveling is not pleasant.”

Since December 4, restaurant patrons above the age of 16 have been required to display Covid certificates in order to enter Finland’s eateries. Individuals who can show they are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, have a negative test result, or have recently recovered from Covid-19 are currently eligible.

Starting Tuesday, all visitors from outside the European Union or Europe’s 26-nation Schengen Area will be subjected to heightened health screening, with all arriving passengers required to produce proof of a negative test done within the preceding 48 hours.

Keeping up with new rules and what they can entail for business is a daily “puzzle” for Karkkainen and her colleagues at the tourist board, and one that has no end in sight.

“Every day, you look at the latest information and worry, ‘What’s going on with the travelers?'” she explained. “It’s been a very trying year and a half, and the most unexpected aspect is that we have no idea when it will finally stop.”

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Information source: AP


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