WEEKEND: From Holy Land To Lapland – Finland’s Surprising Seasonal Visitors

Thousands of tourists and dozens of charter flights help make Rovaniemi a must-see winter destination for visitors from Israel.

File photo of northern lights / Credit: Visit Rovaniemi

A surprising number of winter visitors from Israel are making a big impact on the local economy of Rovaniemi, as thousands come each year to enjoy a wild adventure in Lapland.

When you think of winter visitors to Finland, you perhaps imagine all the flights from Asia bringing plane-loads of tourists. Or the charters from all over Europe dropping families for Santa-themed day trips.

But it’s tourists from Israel that have cornered the market in Lapland – making them by one metric the most abundant visitor to the Rovaniemi area.

“We normally count registered bed nights, and if we look at registered overnights, Israel is the leading country” says Visit Rovaniemi Managing Director Sanna Kärkkäinen.

Up to 8,000 Israelis come to the Rovaniemi area each winter, and stay on average one week. There might be physically more tourists coming from Asia, or other European countries, but using the most common metric of counting hotel bed stays, there could be up to 56,000 Israeli bed nights.

Tourist Origins

The surprising success of Israeli visitors to Rovaniemi can be attributed to one man, Shimon Biton.

And it’s a classic Finnish-foreigner love story!

Biton met his Finnish wife on a kibbutz in Israel in the 1980s.

“First I fell in love with my wife, then I fell in love with Lapland” Shimon Biton says.

Later, he moved north and eventually brought the first small tour group from Israel in the mid-1990s. Since then, it’s been hard work of conversations, of marketing, of convincing people they should come to northern Finland.

“It’s slow marketing, it’s not a quick one. It takes time. It’s a long road”

But why do they come? To experience something totally different than they get at home.

“I think it’s beautiful here, because we don’t have it in Israel. All the things I talk to people about, they think I am coming from the moon! Even if the temperature is minus degrees, it’s special, it’s exotic” explains Biton.

“Every person who wants to spoil his wife or her husband or their children, one of the destinations is Lapland” he adds.

Experiencing Lapland

When most foreign visitors come to Lapland they tend to stay just a few days. Recent media reports in Finland even highlighted how foreign tour companies buy food in bulk to give tourists familiar food from home to keep the price of the holidays cheap.

But Israeli tourists have a reputation in Lapland for buying lots of add-on services like husky or reindeer trips; for going shopping; going on long safaris or ice-breaker trips; and sampling lots of local food in up-scale restaurants. They stay for a week, not just a couple of days.

“When Israelis travel, they really want to see the world. But not only to see it, they want to experience it. When they come to Lapland, they want to taste Lappish food. They want to experience all the activities. You name it, Israelis want to do it” says Biton.

Marketing The Region

According to Finavia, dozens of charter flights now come from Israel to Rovaniemi every year. That’s a big boost to the airport’s economy when you take into account aircraft landing fees, refueling, extra shifts for workers unloading bags or keeping the runway and planes ice free, or just having more tourists buying products and services in the airport’s shops.

In fact, Lapland – especially Rovaniemi – has become so well known in Israel, it outflanks Finland as a destination brand.

“It’s been like a one man show” says Sanna Kärkkäinen.

“Shimon was really stubborn with marketing, and really up to doing it. He just made huge and intelligent work, and now we are here”.

The Visit Rovaniemi team has attended the biggest travel fair in Tel Aviv, to see for themselves how Lapland is perceived.

“Everyone knew Rovaniemi there. We were so popular. But basically I must say that we haven’t done much marketing compared to other markets because Shimon has the perfect contacts and he knows how to do it, and it has been spreading all the time” says Kärkkäinen.

Now, local businesses that work with tour groups are making an effort to court the Israeli market, with brochures and restaurant menus increasingly printed in Hebrew.

Biton’s company also brings in chefs to cook kosher food as many of his customers demand it. The Israeli chefs have helped train local chefs as well.

“It’s a big thing for me that we can offer this kind of food for people who can’t eat other things except this food, and then I can open the door to Lapland to experience those things. Food shouldn’t be a problem” says Shimon.

Visit Rovaniemi’s Sanna Kärkkäinen agrees that her organisation has been learning as well, how to best look after Israeli tour groups.

“It has been a learning process for us on cultural and language perspectives. You really need to have a deeper understanding of what you are doing and who you are targeting. We have learned much” says Kärkkäinen.

Future Plans

Shimon isn’t just bringing tourists from Israel. He’s attracted affluent Jewish tourists from across Europe and North America. Both secular, and Orthodox Jews.

Next, he will open a 25-room boutique hotel called Golden Circle Suites, and each suite has their own sauna.

“When people come here to the Arctic Circle they are trying to find something special, some special experience. And there is also very high quality gold here in Lapland” says Shimon Biton.

“That’s what I want to offer, a golden experience that will last for life”.