Selling Christmas In Finland – Without Santa

If you're not the capital city, and you don't have an established 'Santa industry', then how do you sell yourself as a tourist destination?

Winter Wonderland / Credit: Atacan Ergin, Visit Jyväskylä

At this time of year, it’s not too difficult to attract tourists to Lapland. The combination of snowy winter weather, the possibility to glimpse the Northern Lights, and a well-established Santa tourist industry really helps the region – and in particular Rovaniemi – sell itself.

Finnish Lapland is experiencing a tourism boom that is expanding all year round. Hotels, hostels, chalets and Airbnb rentals are near constantly full. And the increase of tourists has airlines opening more capacity to the north of Finland.

“We are also steadily increasing the capacity on our Lapland routes for next year’s winter. Nearly 30,000 seats will be added compared to this winter” says Finair Chief Commercial Officer Juha Järvinen.

Finnair and other airlines have added flights directly to Lapland from European hubs to meet the tourism demand.

Many tourists of course still come through Helsinki, and as a capital city it’s fairly easy to ‘sell Christmas’ as part of the destination package.

But what happens if you’re a regional Finnish city? You might have snow, and a Santa’s grotto. There might be a Christmas market and charming winter atmosphere. But how do you attract visitors at this time of year if you’re trying to compete with Helsinki and Lapland?

The answers vary. Some cities do try to compete on their own merits. Others want to cash in on their proximity to bigger destinations. Some are developing new strategies. And at least one Finnish city suggests that tourists go elsewhere!

Helsinki’s Capital Strategy

“I don’t think we compete with Lapland, we compliment each other” says Kaari Artemjeff from Visit Helsinki.

“In the winter time many Chinese tourists want to come to Finland, they come to stay in Helsinki and in Lapland too, and I think that’s nice. We market each other, and we help each other out too”.

With a gateway airport, and capital city attractions, Helsinki is often the first port of call for tourists to Finland at all times of the year.
But Helsinki knows its limitations.

“We don’t try to be the city of Santa Claus because that’s Rovaniemi” says Artemjeff.

The capital city is a year round destination, with hotel stays quite stable throughout the year at around 70% capacity, so there’s no particular Christmas ‘spike’ for tourists.

However, tourists from different countries tend to show up at different times of the year. The Russians come in early January for the Orthodox holidays; the Chinese have their own new year and ‘Golden Week’ around national day in October.

“Christmas time is really growing in China and now they are really interested in northern lights and a northern experience” explains Artemjeff.

“I would say that Helsinki has its own way to celebrate Christmas and we don’t have to compete with Rovaniemi” she adds.

Espoo Next Door

If Helsinki is a natural pull for tourists – and their all important spending power – then spare a thought for Finland’s second largest city Espoo, just a few kilometres to the west and now connected to the capital with a new metro line.

Hanna Saari from Visit Espoo describes the city’s winter season as “developing”.

“We don’t try to be Helsinki, because that would be ridiculous to do that. We position ourselves that we are a neighbour city” she explains.

Espoo’s main target tourists are from Asia, especially China, Germany and Central Europe. And the hope is that while they’re visiting Helsinki, the might come to Espoo for a specific attraction like the Nuuksio National Park or a museum exhibition perhaps.

“Tourists from outside Finland might pick a day trip that their travel agent offer, come to the National Park, have lunch by the fire. Asian tourists often come in groups and this might be a day trip for them when they visit the area” says Saari.

Summer is Espoo’s busiest time for tourists, when the lure of nature and especially the archipelago and Nuuskio bring day-trippers from the capital region.

“Christmas and New Year time used to be one of the boosts because of Russians. But with the Russian economy going down heavily it has been affected a lot. That has been one main factor that Christmas and New Year has not been such a big boost” says Hanna Saari.

Vaasa’s Hotel Evolution

For most Finnish cities, it’s a cold hard winter fact that they’re nowhere near the top of any foreign tourist’s Christmas bucket list.

So that means developing services for domestic tourists – people maybe traveling home to be with family over the holiday season.

Businesses in Vaasa have picked up on that market, and adapted the way they work over Christmas.

“Lots of Finns are returning home to their families, but not so much tourists” says Visit Vaasa Managing Director Max Jansson</strong
“Something that is changing in Vaasa is people are staying in hotels, so for the last couple of years, all the hotels are open at Christmas time. In our region I would say it’s the best way to make it easy” he says.

Like other parts of the country, Vaasa is working to market itself as a year-round destination, but Christmas is one area that needs more work.

“Everyone knows we have more tourists in June and July and August. We have German, Swedish, British and Asians. But Christmas is more like time to take it easy. More and more families who come home to their parents they live in hotels” says Jansson.

“You are with your family, but you don’t have to be with your family!”

Bigger City Destinations

Some Finnish cities are big enough that they don’t have to compete for some of the tourists who would anyway only go to Helsinki or Lapland. Places like Tampere and Jyväskylä are geographically distinct enough that they hope to attract tourists in their own right, as well as developing services and events for domestic tourism at this time of year.

At Visit TampereHeli Jokela says the city is “the place to go next” for tourists to Finland.

“We are desperately trying to increase the number of foreign tourists coming to Tampere at winter time […] it’s kind of a challenge for us how to figure out how to get the international tourists to come in December” she says.

The city is resting its hopes on the Moomin connection, especially for tourists from Japan, and officials are trying to add more experiences under the Moomin umbrella after the success of the world’s only Moomin Museum – although the usage rights are closely guarded by the brand.

“You have to look at the big picture. Yes, you can enjoy the nature in winter and do whatever activities like ice skating on the lake or go skiing or to sauna, and we have the best Christmas market in the whole of Finland, atmospheric, German style but with local interests” says Jokela.

It’s a similar situation in Jyväskylä where the city has developed a ‘Joulukylä’ concept bringing together hotels, restaurants, activity companies and events to specifically market the city to foreign and domestic tourists at a time of year that stretches from before Christmas through New Year and Epiphany on 6th January.

“Mainly tourists from other parts of Finland come, who have either their childhood home or other relatives. During New Year time we still have Russian tourists in particular” says Johanna Massola from Visit Jyväskylä.

“Christmas season is important for some companies offering various winter activities. For example, spas and other resort type of companies might even be sold out during holiday season” she says.

The Central Finland region is also branding itself as the ‘Sauna Capital of the World’ as a counter-marketing strategy to Lapland’s Santa Claus industry. This year they declared ‘Christmas Sauna Peace‘ for the third time, and the lakes, forest, nature and sauna culture are an important selling point for Jyväskylä.

Giving Up The Christmas Ghost

While many Finnish cities have strategies to try and develop themselves as winter destinations either for lucrative foreign tourists, or the domestic market, not everyone is making an effort.

Like Pori for example, a city on the west coast that is famous for its summer music festival, but which seems to have given up the ghost at Christmas.

“It’s a family time and we’re not doing anything special to market Christmas” says Armi Makkinen from Visit Pori.

“I think that most tourists just go to some other place”.