It’s a very festive mood in 2020, but with a holiday season like no other fast approaching, Lapland tourism companies believe this is the best way to save Christmas and save yourself after a brutal year which the number of visitors has fallen from the record highs in 2019.
Finland’s new quarantine rules, due to come into effect on November 23, have helped them. Despite a Europe-wide second wave of coronavirus cases leading to new bans, 72-hour visits to the country are possible without quarantine.
Tourists from the 26-country Schengen visa of the EU and Europe are allowed to travel as long as they take a Covid test 72 hours before departure and can prove that it is negative. Longer stays require self-isolation and a second test. However, the rules are subject to change as the Finnish government reformulates its plans at the time of writing.
“Christmas is definitely not canceled,” says Sanna Kärkkäinen, CEO of Visit Rovaniemi, the official home of Santa Claus high above the Arctic Circle in Finnish Lapland.
“This year will be different from previous years, but I’m sure that the travelers who come here will of course have a lot of fun.”
According to Kärkkäinen, companies in the area have been working tirelessly since the summer to prepare for the holidays to ensure they strictly adhere to health and safety protocols.
“Together with the hospital district of Lapland, we have developed a Covid-safe travel model. Here in Lapland there is a large network of tourism providers and destinations in which everyone has been involved.
“We try very hard to act in this way, and of course this is one of our signals to tourists that we are doing everything we can to make tourism safe.”
Find a balance
It’s not what you think To understand the heart of Rovaniemi, Finland, step away from the city center and into the silence of the forest where reindeer rule.
In addition to Santa Claus, who sits behind Plexiglas and his elves and wears PPE, Kärkkäinen says the lack of large groups and concentration on individual groups means that visitors to Santa’s workshop have no problem maintaining social distance.
“In a way, the lower numbers help us develop the services so that we can really combine the health measures with all of the services we offer,” she says.
Domestic tourists have already headed north to see Santa Claus. Kärkkäinen reports that the experience was broadly similar to previous years.
Kärkkäinen fears, however, that given the strict time limit without quarantine, some tourists might choose to stay away.
“Seventy-two hours is a pretty short stay in Lapland,” she says. “They usually take three to four days. Our goal has always been for people to enjoy the area and the destination to the fullest, which means that stays tend to be longer, which of course means that travel is more sustainable. ”
Even so, operators have adjusted their schedules, crowded sleigh rides, hoarse experiences and the chance to see the northern lights before getting travelers back to the airport in time for a quick departure.
Alistair McLean, Managing Director of Artisan Travel Company, which conducts bespoke trips to the region, is impressed with the way Finland is adapting to the situation.
“The Finnish government in particular has worked very closely with tourism officials from Lapland to find the right balance between controlling the spread and safely running their vital tourism industry,” he says.
The nature of outdoor activities in Lapland makes it easier to keep a safe distance while typically only spending time with those you have traveled with in the country, he adds.
“We cannot guarantee with certainty that Santa Claus or his elves will not wear a mask,” says McLean.
“We believe that after the incredible way everyone has adjusted to the new normal of 2020, a truly memorable, magical end-of-year vacation will be incredibly rewarding – even with a few extra safeguards.”
Simon Lynch, Sales Manager at Scott Dunn, is similarly optimistic.
“The coming season looks promising for Finnish and Swedish Lapland,” he says.
“We are encouraged by the numerous inquiries we have received for these two destinations, from families looking for the ultimate trip on their bucket list to see Santa Claus during the holiday season, as well as from reindeer and couples who do who are looking for alternative winter destinations for a secluded romantic getaway under the Northern Lights, where they may have previously opted for a ski-focused winter trip in other parts of Europe. “
Meanwhile in Sweden
Meet the man who could give Santa Claus a run for his money with his soaring sleigh.
On the other side of the Swedish border, Schengen, EU and UK visitors are not subject to quarantine rules. And due to the isolated nature of the region, it is possible to take a relatively safe break there, even if Santa Claus actually lives in Finland.
“We are a travel destination with large areas, lots of small and private accommodations and mainly outdoor activities that are offered to small groups or private companies,” says Anna Skogh of the Swedish Lapland Visitors Board. “That was an advantage of adapting to a more socially distant experience for visitor safety.
Even so, Skogh is not optimistic about visitor numbers.
JONATHAN NACKSTRAND / AFP via Getty Images
“It doesn’t look good for this winter. Long-distance travelers cannot travel, and travel restrictions for the nearby markets change from week to week. Swedish Lapland is particularly hard hit because we are such an international travel destination for the winter season.
“The signs are that people like to travel here, but getting there is a challenge given the circumstances.”
She says requests for direct charter flights to the region have increased, undermining the need to change aircraft in Stockholm. However, given the difficulties air operators face, it remains unlikely for all but the richest winter enthusiast.
It’s Santa Claus on the line
Christmas is big business in Rovaniemi, Finland, but Santa Claus wasn’t the first to spark tourism in this Arctic Circle city.
Some operators have decided that with travel restrictions constantly changing, switching to a virtual approach is the way to go. After a year of video calls to work and family catching up, it seems obvious that Santa should be available on screen rather than in person.
UK-based vacation specialist Santa’s Lapland is offering video calls to Santa Live from Lapland for a family of up to four children for £ 85 (US $ 111). The calls last 10 minutes and are moderated by an elf who takes the family on a tour of Santa’s hut before meeting the big man himself.
The company stopped its trips in 2020 due to increasingly stringent travel policies from the UK to mainland Europe.
“With increasing restrictions across the UK, many of us have wondered how we can keep the magic of Christmas 2020 alive,” said Paul Carter, CEO of Santa’s Lapland. “We want to help make it unforgettable by giving families the opportunity to meet Santa Claus comfortably and safely from home.
“While Christmas cannot be compared to the excitement of traveling to Lapland to visit Santa Claus in his snow-covered hut, where the reindeer are real and the northern lights dance across the night sky. Families can now enjoy a foretaste of real Lappish magic at Christmas. “
Looking to 2021 and beyond
JONATHAN NACKSTRAND / AFP via Getty Images
Santa’s Lapland is already offering bookings for 2021 and says that many of its customers who lost this year have simply rebooked for next Christmas.
Julie Kenyon of Lapland Experiences says this has become popular with those who want to get upset about something in 12 months.
“Some of our tour operating partners have completely stopped their 2020 Santa program and moved most of their customers to 2021. So it is important that people planning to visit Lapland in December 2021 are fully booked now as the demand will be very high. Next, I will be moving customers as early as 2021 and places for this type of trip are limited.
“If 2020 trips are not an option, the focus will shift to 2021 and I will make sure that all of our 2020 customers are booked again. I advise anyone interested to book their Lapland vacation for next year as soon as possible. “”
In Rovaniemi, where even the city’s street map is shaped like a reindeer, Sanna Kärkkäinen is looking for a boost until 2021.
“We are definitely looking forward to the next season and the next winter season ’21 / 22. I think that will now be the biggest goal. As soon as the world recovers, I think our development will be fine with tourism. “
For now, the Christmas rescue depends on Finland sticking to its new travel restrictions and intrepid Santa fans looking past the plexiglass and preparing for a Covid test before the flight.
Only time will tell if Christmas 2020 has really not been canceled.
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