The closure of Russian airspace is causing uncertainty in Lapland’s tourism industry, which is heavily dependent on travel from Asian countries. The number of Asian tourists visiting Finnish Lapland increased year on year, before coming to a complete halt due to the pandemic. Now, after many travel restrictions have been lifted, travel between Asia and Finland is facing another problem. Sanctions have been imposed and as a result Russian airspace is currently closed to the European Union as well as the United States and Canada.
Finnair flies to around 20 destinations in Asia, and Helsinki Airport functions as a major hub for transfer flights to and from Asia. Those 20 destinations have now been whittled down to just under ten. Avoiding Russian airspace leads to severe flight disruptions and longer flight times, which will make traveling between Asia and Finland much more difficult. “This is one exceptional situation after one exceptional situation,” says Sanna Kärkkäinen, general manager of tourist board Visit Rovaniemi. Kärkkäinen says it is difficult to determine at this stage whether many cancellations occurred due to the war and subsequent airspace closure. The winter season was coming to an end when Russian airspace was closed, and bookings this year have been a bit more chaotic than before. “We have become accustomed to this new type of travel, where reservations are made late and are often changed,” explains Kärkkäinen. “If it had intensified earlier, we would have seen more cancellations,” she explains.
The city of Rovaniemi was previously heavily dependent on Asian tourism, but recent developments have once again caused the amounts to plummet. Kärkkäinen explains that this winter season has been exceptionally good for Rovaniemi tourism and they have managed to reach 80% of their pre-pandemic sales. “We didn’t put all our eggs in one basket,” says Kärkkäinen, their hit for the year. “Even though the Asian market has shrunk, we have still broken records in the field and the demand has been constant,” she continues.
The war in Ukraine also raises other concerns for the Lapland tourism industry. In particular, the rise in fuel prices is the source of uncertainty; “We are now moving into the summer season and wondering what it will look like this year,” says Kärkkäinen. According to her, predicting what summer tourism looks like is always difficult. Summer 2021 has seen a massive increase in tourism to northern Lapland due to inconvenient foreign travel and the lifting of national Covid restrictions. “I have a feeling people will be strict on their spending this year,” says Kärkkäinen. Summer tourists are traditionally independent travelers who usually drive a car through Lapland. With fuel prices rising due to the current geopolitical situation, it is not yet clear how this will affect the decisions of people wishing to travel north. Kärkkäinen believes that Northern Finland will remain a desirable travel destination, especially for domestic travel. “We have amazing attractions and I believe people always have a passion to travel somewhere,” she says. Kärkkäinen continues to explain that while the situation in Europe is considered unsafe, people will feel safe traveling within the country to familiar places where they feel safe.
The following year will be a new season full of questions for the Lapland tourism industry. After two turbulent years, it looks like the coming seasons will be filled with uncertainty. However, local tourism industries are cautiously optimistic. “Even though the crises strongly affect our industry, the recovery is also fast,” concludes Kärkkäinen.