The 2018 World Cup kicks off in Russia today, and with two million tickets sold, hundreds of thousands of fans from all round the world are expected to arrive at the tournament.
Organisers are hoping to pack stadiums in big cities like Moscow and Yekaterinburg; as well as lesser-known destinations like Samara and Saransk.
One of the biggest venues is right on Finland’s doorstep. St. Petersburg’s Krestovsky Stadium seats 67,000 spectators and will host seven World Cup matches, including a round of 16 tie, a semi final and the third place final.
And it was the stadium’s close proximity and fast train connections that officials in Lappeenranta hoped would prove to be a cash windfall for the eastern Finland city.
There were plans to sell packages of accommodation and tickets, and hopes of charter flights landing at the airport, to boost the local economy.
But it all fell apart when a ticket deal failed to materialise; St. Petersburg’s airport increased its own capacity; and the luck of the fixtures draw didn’t work in Lappennranta’s favour.
One of the first deals hammered out between Lappeenranta tourist authorities and their Visit Russia counterparts involved getting batches of tickets for St. Petersburg games. The idea was that Finnish companies could offer package deals of transport, accommodation and tickets to sell to tourists who wanted to base themselves on the Finland side of the border, but attend games at the Krestovsky Stadium.
The deal turned sour when the tickets never arrived.
“They were supposed to get us tickets, and this local travel agency representative of Visit Russia in Lappeenranta, they were going to do packages with our hotels, tickets for the games and coach transport” explains Mirka Rahman who is in charge of marketing and tourism for Lappeenranta city.
“But it hasn’t materialised because the tickets never came from Russia” she says.
Another complication was a new requirement for coaches operating in Russia to fit new location devices, which the Finnish companies hadn’t installed. It ruled them out of contention to shuttle football tourists the several hours over the border between the two cities.
“It was a marketing and communication agreement [with Visit Russia]. We were going to promote together. I was just trying to enhance business opportunities with local companies, but Visit Russia hasn’t come through for us” says Rahman.
Lappeenranta Airport was also hoping for some World Cup business.
The airport – just 3km from the city centre – has been owned by the city since early 2016 and after a two year gap low cost carrier Ryanair started flights this year from Lappeenranta to Athens and Bergamo in Italy.
While there’s no domestic flights yet, the focus is firmly on the potential of seven million people who live in the St. Petersburg area who might come to Finland for flights. The two cities are only 90 minutes apart on high speed trains with customs and border formalities on board.
Despite feeling positive at the beginning of the year, and receiving several queries, no charter flights of football fans made firm bookings to land at Lappeenranta.
One reason is that St. Petersburg’s airport added extra capacity. So there’s no need for charters to land in Finland.
“They are making another terminal in June to handle additional charter flights so they are saying they have enough capacity for world cup flights [in St. Petersburg]” explains Eija Joro, CEO of Lappeenranta Airport.
Another piece of bad luck happened when both Italy and Greece failed to qualify for the World Cup, so those Ryanair flights from Bergamo in northern Italy, or Athens, are likely only to bring summer tourists, rather than football fans.
Luck Of The Draw
City officials were waiting with baited breath earlier this year to find out which teams would be playing in St. Petersburg during the tournament.
The hope was that some of the big European countries would get a St. Petersburg match in the group stages, and possibly book lucrative landing slots for charter flights at Lappeenranta or choose hotel accommodation in Finland where the security situation is more relaxed.
But Lappeenranta was unlucky here too. Instead of Germany, England or Spain, St. Petersburg will host Morocco, Russia, Iran, Egypt, Brazil, Costa Rica, Nigeria and Argentina.
“For the games in St. Petersburg, we had high expectations. But there are no European countries really” says Mirka Rahman.
Of course there’s a good chance that some of the big European countries will play there in the semi finals, but that’s small comfort for tour operators in Finland who hoped to strike World Cup tourist gold.
“If there would be more European teams, there would be more charter flights coming to the region. But this is the situation” says Eija Joro.
It’s not all bad news for international tourism in Lappeenranta.
The new Ryanair flights, and marketing cooperation with the destination cities, opens up the eastern Lakeland region to new tourists.
Russian passengers too, are using the fast rail link to come to Finland, and fly to Italy and Greece.
And a new low-cost bus connection between the airport and St. Petersburg will launch in July, with tickets around €15 for a round trip.