Little to cheer about in Santa’s homeland as tourists stay away

In Finland’s snowy far north, international visitors normally flood the Santa Claus Village amusement park, in search of reindeer rides, snow castles and a meeting with the jolly man himself.

Under the pandemic travel restrictions, however, crowds in the Lapland town of Rovaniemi have dwindled to just a trickle and the joyful winter wonderland feels ghostly and abandoned.

‘Santa actually had time to chat!’

Santa Claus Village
Santa and his elf, Vanilla, read letters separated by a plexiglass screen to slow the spread of coronavirus, on December 17, 2020 in Rovaniemi at the Santa Claus Village amusement park, where visitor numbers have collapsed this year due to coronavirus restrictions. In Finland’s snowy far north, international visitors normally flood the Santa Claus Village amusement park, in search of reindeer rides, snow castles and a meeting with the jolly, red figure himself. Image: Sam Kingsley/ AFP

“It’s been an exceptional and difficult year,” Santa tells AFP from behind a plexiglass screen installed in his grotto, adding that his visitors have appreciated being able to forget a tough year and enjoy the Christmas cheer.

Those who can’t make it to Lapland can still purchase a remote one-on-one with Santa, at 79 euros (R1,409) for five minutes, and the service has proven popular.

“People this year have most of all asked me for happiness, health and then a bit more happiness,” although the children still want toys and games, he says.

“Santa actually had time to chat!” Andrea Karjalainen, on a short break to Rovaniemi from southern Finland with her family, said.

“You would expect that there are thousands of people now, but we’re more or less alone,” adds Teppo, her partner.

Livelihoods in danger

Since the 1980s, tourism chiefs have marketed the Arctic Circle town of Rovaniemi as the “real” home of Santa Claus, helping Finnish Lapland attract a record 2.9 million overnight stays in 2019, especially from Europe and Asia.

This year, however, visits have plummeted to half a million, most from early 2020 before the virus hit.

“The local livelihoods are really in danger,” Sanna Karkkainen, CEO of Visit Rovaniemi, tells AFP.

“We’ve already got news of the first bankruptcies and there’s going to be more.”

With Finland effectively shut off to international tourists, the impact on Lapland has been stark: 5,000 jobs and 700 million euros (R12.5 billion) in revenue have already been lost, a drop of up to 70%, Karkkainen says.

Many businesses have tried to stay open, such as the family-run Husky Park, whose current footfall is nothing like the normal 600 international visitors a day.

“But we’ve been positively surprised that there have been home-grown tourists, and the snow here has started bringing people in the south to Lapland,” chief of operations Kristian Erkkila tells AFP over the noise of 90 huskies barking.

Behind him, a Finnish family is being helped into a sled, lined with warm reindeer fur, which is then pulled away by 12 huskies following the shouted commands of the musher.

“We’re delighted to welcome everyone, but the whole time we’re thinking what we need to do differently to be able to survive next summer,” Erkkila says, but adds that the vaccine provides “some light at the end of the tunnel”.

Waiting for decisions

At the nearby Santa Park underground theme park, owners Ilkka and Katja Lantinen have opted to cut their losses and reopen in winter 2021.

Their staff of 400 seasonal and permanent workers has been slashed to just 36.

That number will now be cut even further as the pair’s luxury hotel, the Arctic Treehouse, will also close for the season after the government’s promised lifting of travel restrictions did not materialise.

“We had the team in, everybody was in really high spirits about opening the season,” Ilkka says.

“It seems our government is only capable of making decisions one month at a time. Unfortunately, we can’t live like that,” Lantinen says.

Although the Lantinens’ takings are down 98% this year, winter 2021 bookings are “looking really good”, assuming that the virus situation allows.

‘Stressing doesn’t help’

Half an hour away on the shore of a frozen lake, Ville Haavikko and his team are putting the final touches to the Arctic Snow Hotel, using chainsaws to carve steps and stacking thick blocks of clear ice into a wall.

“We’ve tried to keep the business running and people at work because we have permanent employees with their own families and mortgages,” Haavikko tells AFP.

Usually there would be “hundreds of customers every day” who also stay in the glass igloos hoping to glimpse the northern lights.

But all rooms are currently empty and only a handful of bookings await.

With only the domestic market available they designed a half-size snow hotel with 11 rooms — each carved with intricate ice sculptures on themes ranging from Arctic forest to circus.

Back at his grotto, Santa and his elf, Vanilla, are reading through some of the many thousands of Christmas wishlists that, despite the pandemic, children around the world have sent him.

Won’t the border closures make it difficult to deliver all those presents?

“I have brilliant news for you,” Santa laughs, “Christmas is happening this year too.”

“So remember to be good, and enjoy it safely.”

— By by Sam Kingsley © Agence France-Presse