Hopes and fears in Finnish Christmas country as omicron looms

ROVANIEMI, Finland (AP) – Workers at Santa Claus Village, a holiday theme park on the edge of the Arctic Circle, eroded a frozen dome, using scissors to put the finishing touches on an ice-filled restaurant and hotel sculptures of snowmen, penguins and huskies.

The Christmas season is in full swing in Finnish Lapland, where site operators are pleased to report that visitors have returned in numbers approaching pre-pandemic levels. Tourists from elsewhere in Finland and abroad come to revel in the festive spirit of the sprawling theme park, take a reindeer sleigh or husky ride and if they’re lucky, catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights.

The duration of the winter fun is uncertain, as the omicron variant of the coronavirus comes with new travel restrictions, testing requirements and quarantine measures.

“It’s a concern, of course, because nobody knows what’s going to happen,” Sanna Karkkainen, CEO of Visit Rovaniemi, the tourist office for the capital of Finnish Lapland. “There is always the concern that we are going to get cancellations.”

The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent travel lockdowns and restrictions have hit the travel industry in the region of northern Finland hard. Before the pandemic, around 60% of Rovaniemi’s more than half a million annual visitors came from abroad, mostly elsewhere in Europe and some Asian countries.

According to Visit Rovaniemi, just over 11,000 people visited the city last December, down 82% from the same month a year earlier. After surviving a miserable 2020, many companies see this winter as a “turning point,” Karkkainen said.

“They couldn’t suffer another year, another Christmas, without customers, that’s for sure,” she added.

Winter is the busiest tourist season in Finnish Lapland, and Air France and Eurowings recently added new direct flights to Rovaniemi from Paris and Düsseldorf, respectively. Local businesses say demand was high this month as visitors headed north, relieved to have escaped after last year’s closures.

“I think the last week the last few days have been busier than ever,” said Tuomas Palmgren, co-owner of the Rovaniemi Santa Line taxi service.

Newlyweds Stefanie and Mauro Sammut have decided to go on their honeymoon to Finnish Lapland, a complete change in temperature from their native Malta. The couple said they feared the trip might be canceled until they boarded their flight.

“After the plane took off, we said, ‘OK, we’re fine,’” laughed Mauro Sammut, as young children slipped past the couple on sleds in Santa Claus Village and families posed for photos next to a temperature gauge showing minus 14 degrees Celsius (6.8 degrees Fahrenheit).

SantaPark, a Lapland theme park built in a former air raid shelter, decided to close in March 2020, and with the pandemic continuing to drive visitors away, only reopened this winter. Park experiment manager Ilkka Lankinen recalled the mental distress of not knowing when they might return.

“We totally missed last Christmas season,” he said, standing in the park’s “elf school”, where kids can take a crash course to become one of Santa’s loyal helpers. . “We tried to open the hotel, but we also abandoned this one. So basically SantaPark has been closed for two years.

Sisters Laura and Anne Marie Spencer from Dublin, Ireland, originally booked their Lapland getaway for December 2020. The pandemic has forced them to postpone the family trip for a year.

“It wasn’t the only vacation we had to book, but we were determined to come here,” said Anne Marie Spencer.

There are currently no cuddles with Santa at Santa Claus Village – visitors are separated from Santa by a plexiglass screen shaped like a gingerbread cookie. But returning tourists are a welcome sight for many, including a restaurant in central Rovaniemi that opened in August 2020.

“Most people thought we were completely crazy even thinking of opening the restaurant in August when the going was at its worst,” said Elisa Honkavuori, co-owner of Gustav Kitchen and Bar.

The restaurant’s chefs are now preparing their modern Finnish-inspired dishes, such as rainbow trout and roasted potatoes with a caper butter sauce, to national and international customers. Still, Honkavuori fears that the uncertainty and renewed restrictions that have arrived with the omicron variant will make people “feel like it’s not fun to travel.”

Restaurant customers over 16 are required to present COVID certificates to enter Finnish restaurants since December 4. COVID-19[FEMALE[FEMININE

From Tuesday, however, Finland is reintroducing increased health screening for all travelers outside the European Union or the Schengen area of ​​the 26 European countries, requiring all arriving passengers to present proof of a negative test carried out within the previous 48 hours.

For Karkkainen and his colleagues at the tourist board, keeping up to date with the new rules and what they might mean for business is a daily “headache” and a never-ending puzzle is in sight.

“You look at the latest updates” every day and ask yourself, “What’s going on with travelers? »», She declared. “It’s been a very difficult year and a half, and the most surprising factor is that we don’t know when it’s really going to end.”


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