Pekka Sauri Column: Is Tourism a Blessing or a Curse?

Pekka Sauri was Deputy Mayor of Helsinki from 2003 to 2017. He is now finding a new role as a critical resident.

Suomenlinna Sea Fortress / Credit: Visit Helsinki

In the past few months, I’ve noted that sentiments critical of mass tourism are growing around Europe. Barcelona, Venice and Dubrovnik are recent examples, and there are probably many more.

There are a number of reasons for this – overcrowding of popular attractions, increasing wear and tear of the infrastructure and inflated prices are usually top of the list.

From the viewpoint of the north-eastern corner of Europe, these concerns have barely started to surface. Finland and the capital city Helsinki are still in the traditional mode of trying to attract more tourists in the face of stiff competition from more illustrious European cities. It goes without saying that Helsinki has no chance of comparing herself with London, Paris or even Copenhagen.

The competition edges closer to these shores year by year: lavishly re-decorated St. Petersburg has a population larger than the whole of Finland and is only three and a half hours away by train; good old Stockholm is getting even more vibrant and hygglig than before and the Estonian capital Tallinn offers an atmosphere of enthusiasm and innovation – and a quaint old town which beats the tiny Tori Quarters area of Helsinki single-handed.

Still, the number of tourists has rocketed also in Helsinki. This is mostly due to the ambitious Far East direct flight programme offered by Finnair, the national air carrier. The strategy seems to work brilliantly. This summer, the streets of the city centre have been packed with travelers from China, Japan and South Korea. My hunch is that the Far Eastern tourists have first visited the more illustrious European cities, and Helsinki is mostly a stopover on the forward or return journey.

Obviously, the downside of mass tourism has not yet appeared in Helsinki in any conspicuous manner. If I think about it, however, I can already discern some early symptoms. In the summer months, the streets are often filled by double-decker sightseeing coaches and shuttle buses to and from the massive cruise ships moored in the West Harbour. As parking space is extremely limited in the City Centre, the rows of buses encircle Senate Square and the Cathedral so comprehensively that they block the sites from view. Clearly, some ingenious innovation is sorely needed to sort this problem out.

A wear-and-tear problem can be seen in the Suomenlinna (Sveaborg) sea fortress which is visited by growing numbers of both domestic and foreign tourists especially in the summer months. In 2016, the neighbouring island of Vallisaari was opened to visitors and appears to shoulder some of the burden from Suomenlinna.

Perhaps Helsinki should find a new angle to mass tourism which could be exported to other cities. Sustainable urban tourism might be a good concept for this. Remember – you read it here first.