New plans to save Lapland’s tourist industry as the clock runs down on winter holiday sales

Tour operators, business development agencies, the government and even the EU have plans on how to make travel easier during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

File picture of husky sled ride in Lapland / Credit: iStock

Package holiday travel corridors, tourism bubbles, test-to-fly schemes: the government and regional tourism operators are casting a wide net to come up with ways to save Finland’s highly seasonal foreign tourist industry.

The raft of new initiatives which emerged over the past week came as the travel industry and business lobby groups are warning about the devastating effect ongoing coronavirus-related travel restrictions will have on Lapland in particular, with the traditional winter tourist rush due to start in just a few months but looking increasingly precarious.

“This is pretty much a matter of life and death. We already know that whatever happens in terms of traveling about 50% of the tourism will be lost for this winter season anyway because there are for sure many source markets that stay closed, and people will not travel” explains Rami Korhonen, Chief Operating Officer at Lapland Safaris, one of the biggest travel companies in the region.

“What we are battling for now is the other half. And the other half for example the UK charter flights is crucial because it’s catered by basically hundreds of companies in Lapland and if we lose that we lose in our company’s case, if we lose the foreign travel we will lose almost 100% of the turnover for this year. And everyone knows what it means” he tells News Now Finland.

Those UK package holiday deals – on or off – are likely to be decided by operators during September meaning time is running out to find a workable solution.

An advocacy group in Lapland – including tour operators, local business organisations and public health authorities – have banded together to propose a new regime for package holiday groups, which could be especially helpful for key markets like UK, Germany and the Netherlands.

It essentially ‘manages’ their trip from start to finish, knowing who is where at any given time, and which individuals the tourists interact with. In case of a coronavirus outbreak it would in theory be easy enough to identify and trace infection chains.

“Working side by side across industries here in Lapland is built-in. The Lapland companies are strongest when working together in crisis” says Sanna Kärkkäinen, Managing Director of Visit Rovaniemi.

The travel corridor plan has been developed in cooperation with the Lapland Hospital District, and it’s a concept regional actors hope to put to to the government this week.

“The main logic is that we focus on groups whose travel path from airport-to-airport we know in advance. We know what is the programme, what is the schedule, who the people are and how they can be contacted – and normally they move in groups” says Lapland Safaris’ Rami Korhonen.

“Everything starts with the risk assessment” he adds.

File picture of vehicles waiting at West Harbour Helsinki, for arrival of ferry from Estonia, May 2019 / Credit: iStock

Government’s own plans in the pipeline

The government too has plans in the pipeline for how it might open up tourism again.

Officials at the Ministry of Transport and Communications are “urgently preparing” an amendment to the law which would oblige airlines, ferry operators or charter bus companies to require that passengers show a negative Covid-19 test before they begin their journey to Finland.

It’s primarily aimed at making it easier for authorities to stop specific routes – like the recent Turku-Skopje flight connection – where there are high numbers of passengers who test positive for Covid-19. But it could also be a way to open up popular tourist routes to places like Lapland. Negative test certificates was a measure several countries already put in place over the summer so Finland would hardly be a pioneer in that regard.

“It has become clear that the powers of transport authorities need to be strengthened in order to ensure health safety in transport. The Finnish Transport and Communications Agency Traficom has the right to temporarily cut off dangerous flight routes” says Minister Timo Harakka (SDP).

“In daily international traffic, it would be most effective to oblige the transport organizer on flights, ships, buses and trains to take care of and check that the tourist has a certificate of a negative test result” he adds.

Officials at the ministry tell News Now Finland that it’s one tool in their range of options to combat the spread of coronavirus, and it opens for comments from the travel industry on Monday, even as they concede it’s at odds with what the Lapland coalition is proposing.

Tour operators in Lapland say that requiring a family of four from the UK to all prove negative tests within a certain period of arriving in Finland would be financially prohibitive and practically tough given the testing availability situation there, and likely be a deal breaker for many people who might otherwise be interested in package holidays to Finland.

There’s also a concern in Lapland that the government’s plan would open the door for more solo or small group travelers, who are much less predictable in their movements than charter groups, and much more difficult to track and trace in the event of a coronavirus infection.

File picture of European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, speaking with Swedish PM, 3rd September 2020 / Credit: Etienne Ansotte, EC

EU wants to open all borders 

A complicating factor in all of this is a new proposal from European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen who wants to open up all EU internal borders with much looser infection controls than at present.

The Commission is proposing to move from a system where individual EU countries decide on their own border situation, based on virus rates, to a system where Brussels opens all borders, and relies on testing or quarantine to stop the spread of coronavirus.

In a speech last Friday the German politician said millions of people in the EU, including workers and students, rely on having open borders.

“It is indeed very important to try to limit the spread of the virus. But citizens are often left confused about where they can travel, which rules they have to respect on the way, what must they do on arrival to stay safe, and as many citizens experience, these rules change very often” von der Leyen says.

Her new “common approach” plan would introduce a unified traffic light system, and allow free movement among member states where there are 50 or fewer positive Covid-19 cases per 100,000 population during the previous 14 days.

That number is significantly higher than Finland’s current rules, which are credited in part with keeping the pandemic relatively light so far, which says that unrestricted travel can only happen between Finland and countries where there’s just 8-10 positive Covid-19 tests per 100,000 population in the previous fortnight.