Workers at Santa Claus Village, a holiday theme park on the edge of the Arctic Circle, cut a frozen dome, using chisels to put the finishing touches on an ice restaurant hotel filled with sculptures of snowmen, penguins and huskies. .
The Christmas season is in full swing in Finnish Lapland, where site operators are happy to report that visitors have returned in numbers approaching pre-pandemic levels.
Tourists from other parts of Finland and abroad come to bask in the festive spirit of the sprawling theme park, take a reindeer or husky sleigh ride, and if they’re lucky, catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights.
How long the winter fun will last is unknown as the Omicron variant of the coronavirus spawns new travel restrictions, testing requirements and quarantine measures.
“It’s a concern, of course, because no one knows what’s going to happen,” said Sanna Karkkainen, executive director of Visit Rovaniemi, the tourism board for the Finnish Lapland capital. “There is always the concern that we are going to have cancellations.”
The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent closures and travel restrictions hit the northern region of Finland’s travel industry hard.
Before the pandemic, around 60 percent of Rovaniemi’s more than half a million annual visitors came from abroad, mainly from other parts of Europe and some Asian countries.
According to Visit Rovaniemi, just over 11,000 people visited the city last December, 82% less than in the same month last year.
Having survived a miserable 2020, many companies see this winter as a “turning point,” Karkkainen said.
“They could not suffer another year, another Christmas, without customers, that’s for sure,” he added.
Winter is the busiest tourist season in Finnish Lapland, and Air France and Eurowings recently added new direct flights to Rovaniemi from Paris and Dusseldorf, respectively.
Local businesses say demand was high this month as visitors headed north, relieved to have escaped after last year’s closed shutdowns.
“I think the last week, the last few days, has been busier than ever,” said Tuomas Palmgren, co-owner of Rovaniemi’s taxi service, Santa Line.
Newlyweds Stefanie and Mauro Sammut decided to honeymoon in Finnish Lapland, a total change in the temperatures of their native Malta.
The couple said they feared the trip could be canceled right until they boarded their flight.
“Once the plane took off, we said, ‘It’s okay, we’re okay,’” Mauro Sammut laughed, as the young children sledged past the couple in Santa’s Village and families posed for photos next to a temperature gauge that said: 14 degrees centigrade.
SantaPark, a Lapland theme park built in a former bomb shelter, decided to close its doors in March 2020 and as the pandemic continues to keep visitors away, it only reopened this winter.
The park’s experience director, Ilkka Lankinen, recalled the mental anguish of not knowing when they might return.
“We missed the last Christmas season completely,” he said, standing in the park’s “Elf School”, where kids can take a crash course to become one of Santa’s trusted helpers.
“We tried to get the hotel open, but we also abandoned it. So basically, SantaPark has been closed for two years.”
Sisters Laura and Anne Marie Spencer from Dublin, Ireland originally booked their Lapland getaway for December 2020. The pandemic forced them to delay their family trip by a year.
“It wasn’t the only vacation we had to rebook, but we were determined to get here,” said Anne Marie Spencer.
There are currently no hugs with Santa in Santa Claus Village – visitors are separated from Santa by a plexiglass display shaped like a gingerbread cookie.
But returning tourists are a welcome sight for many, including a restaurant in downtown Rovaniemi that opened in August 2020.
“Most people thought we were completely crazy that we would even think about opening the restaurant in August when the situation was at its worst,” said Elisa Honkavuori, co-owner of Gustav Kitchen and Bar.
The restaurant’s chefs are now preparing their modern Finnish-inspired dishes, such as rainbow trout and roasted potatoes with caper butter sauce, for national and international guests.
However, Honkavuori fears that the uncertainty and renewed restrictions that have come with the Omicron variant will make people “feel like traveling is not pleasant.”
Restaurant customers over the age of 16 must show COVID certificates to enter Finnish restaurants from December 4.
For now, people are eligible if they can show that they are fully vaccinated against coronavirus, have a negative test result, or show that they have recently recovered from COVID-19.
However, as of Tuesday, Finland is reintroducing increased health screening on all travelers from outside the European Union or the Schengen Area, requiring all arriving passengers to show proof of a negative test taken within the previous 48 hours.
For Karkkainen and his colleagues at the tourist office, keeping up with the new rules and what they could mean for business is a daily “conundrum,” and one with no end is in sight.
You “look at the latest updates” every day and ask yourself, ‘What’s going on with travelers?’ “, He said.
“It’s been a really tough year and a half, and the most surprising factor is that we don’t know when it will really end.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism