The Finnish region of Lapland fears that a wave of the Corona virus in Europe will reach the Christmas season

Daytime temperatures drop to -12°C and there is snow in the streets of Rovaniemi, the capital of Finnish Lapland.

Fairy lights twinkle, hotel staff are back at their posts, restaurant kitchens are set up, and snowmobiles are ready to go.

What they are waiting for now is the arrival of tourists.

This part of Finland relies heavily on seasonal visitors during the winter, especially in the weeks leading up to Christmas when more than a dozen charter flights per day land at the city’s small Arctic Circle airport, bringing viewers from all over Europe for day trips in Winter Wonderland.

The COVID pandemic travel restrictions and lockdowns last year devastated the economy here, with tourist numbers from outside Finland down 98% compared to the previous year.

Now, with coronavirus infection rates on the rise across Europe, there are concerns about whether it could affect the local economy this year as well.

But there is also cautious optimism.

“It looks positive at the moment, but of course there are threats and fears in Europe,” says Sana Karkinen, Managing Director of the Tourism Promotion Board at Visit Rovaniemi.

“There is a high possibility of something going on of course in the European market, as we are constantly hearing now from Austria and Germany, as well as other countries with high infection numbers that have the potential for more restrictions.

“It could hit our winter or even the Christmas season. There are a lot of question marks.”

Tourists and business owners alike fear that if there is any further delay in the road to recovery, the businesses that have managed to survive the pandemic will not survive for the second year in a row without international tourists.

However, this year it is estimated that inbound tourism numbers will reach 70% of the pre-pandemic figures for 2019 which was already a record, as the main markets for charter flights to Rovaniemi – in Germany, the Netherlands and the UK – look healthy in these stage.

The latest forecasts say Lapland will fully recover from the pandemic in terms of its tourism economy by 2023, a year earlier than the first forecasts made in the spring.

Business owners carefully monitor COVID-19 numbers in Europe

For many local businesses that rely heavily on winter vacationers, winter 2021/22 will be a successful season or holiday.

Lapland Safaris caters to the outdoor adventure market, an increasingly important segment of the travel industry. Husky and reindeer sleigh rides, snow fishing and snowmobile safaris are available, as well as cultural and culinary experiences and sky-gazing under the stunning aurora borealis.

“We are more optimistic at the moment, it seems that the demand is there and we are taking reservations, and the tour operators are taking the reservations very well,” says Rami Korhonen, chief operating officer of Lapland Safari.

There has been strong interest from the UK, its largest market, but also from the Benelux, France, Spain, Italy and Germany – even as coronavirus numbers mount and new restrictions are being put in place in some regions.

“Of course it is a concern if there is a complete lockdown. It means that people cannot travel even if they are fully vaccinated, so it is a huge blow to us. Hopefully fully vaccinated people can travel this winter, this is very important for us.

“We lost 95% of the business last season and the last 20 months have been like this. If we lose this season, I think we will pretty much lose the entire business in Lapland, so we have to get some clients.”

One bright spot was the local tourism market which grew by 13% in December 2020 as Finns, unable to travel to enjoy the winter sun or ski in the Alps, turned north to discover holiday options in their home country. Direct international flights to Rovaniemi from London, Paris, Dusseldorf, Milan and Istanbul are set to open up further growth opportunities.

The new normal for Christmas tourists

Traditionally in the lead-up to Christmas, families flock to Rovaniemi from all over Europe – peak times as the school holidays begin.

The excitement of meeting Santa Claus is clearly the main draw of visiting Lapland, and kids of all ages can meet him at two locations: the original Santa Claus village with its log cabins and a post office run by elves, which was founded in the 1980s. ; And the newest SantaPark in an underground cave with freshly baked gingerbread cookies, a little train ride, and more elves.

But due to the pandemic, there is no chance for children to sit on Santa’s lap this year.

“It’s a serious question! Santa Claus belongs to a high-risk group because of his age,” explains Sana Karakkinen of Visit Rovaniemi.

“He’s completely vaccinated, of course, and he’s sitting behind plexiglass and everyone’s wearing a mask.”

Children will have to sit on a bench to ensure social distancing, and cameras are angled so that official photos do not show plexiglass between children and Santa.

“The moment is of course very charming anyway.”

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