Lapland left lonely as tourists stay away from Santa's homeland - GulfToday

Lapland left lonely as tourists stay away from Santa's homeland


Santa and his elf, Vanilla, read letters separated by a plexiglass screen to slow the spread of coronavirus.

Gulf Today Report

International visitors usually flood the Santa Claus Village amusement park, in Finland’s snowy far north, for the reindeer rides, snow castles, and a meeting with the jolly man himself.

As the virus cases soar around the world, the pandemic restrictions are more scrutinized.

However, crowds in the Lapland town of Rovaniemi have dwindled to just a trickle and the cheerful winter wonderland feels ghostly and abandoned.

"This year has been an exception and a tough year," Santa tells 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 cannot make it to Lapland can still purchase a remote one-on-one with Santa, 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.

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

laplands The Arctic Snow Hotel is pictured on December 17, 2020 in Rovaniemi.

Livelihoods in danger

Tourism chiefs have noted that the Arctic Circle town of Rovaniemi as the ‘real’ home of Santa Claus, helping Finnish Lapland attract a record 2.9 million overnight stays last year, especially from Europe and Asia, since 1980s.

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 .

"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 in revenue have already been lost, a drop of up to 70 percent, 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.

Behind him, a Finnish family is being helped into a sled, lined with warm reindeer fur, which is then pulled away by twelve 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".

santa-chrismas A bubble-themed room is pictured at the Arctic Snow Hotel, built entirely out of snow and ice in Rovaniemi.

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 tells.

"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 percent 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.

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."

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