Finland continues to attract Russian tourists, but next year looks bleaker on the incoming front
Even though the new supermarket in Nuijamaa, the Laplandia-Market, is located one kilometre west of the Russian border, one could easily imagine being on the eastern side of the boundary line.
The only language one can hear in the shop is Russian, and large crowds are surrounding the mountain of coffee packets and the fish counter. However, the product names are written in price tags with small letters in Finnish.
Managing Director Mohamed Darwich opened his market in Nuijamaa at the beginning of last summer. Almost 100 % of the clientele is Russian, coming mainly from St. Petersburg.
”Instant coffee and detergents are always selling well”, Darwich reports. Tools, Christmas decorations, sweets, and many other things are overflowing from large trolleys.
Darwich and a number of other entrepreneurs are eagerly looking forward to the New Year season, which is expected to be the peak of the Russian tourism boom.
Nearly 100,000 Russians are forecast to come to spend their New Year in Finland. Over the coming weeks every second traveller making holiday trips to Finland comes from Russia.
The tourist industry will watch the figures closely, as this is the first time that the number of tourist overnights per country could exceed one million. The total number of overnights by Russian tourists has grown by a massive 22 % in 2008.
The significance of tourism is particularly great in southeastern districts of the country. According to the entrepreneurs in Southern Karelia, the proportion of Russian buyers in the sales of the shops in the province is around one-fifth.
When it comes to tax free sales, Lappeenranta is already approaching Helsinki. Over the period from January through October, the tax-free sales increased by 62 % from the corresponding period last year.
In terms of value, the sales rose to EUR 32 million, while in the capital the value of tax free sales was EUR 42 million during the same period.
The financial crisis which is troubling Russia as elsewhere is nevertheless likely to darken the prospects. Still in the autumn the Finnish Tourist Board (MEK) predicted that the new year would be record-busy, but the number of travellers is now thought likely to remain the same as in 2007-2008.
Regional Manager Arto Asikainen from MEK estimates that the growth in Russian tourism could be over for the time being.
”If the figures remain the same as this year, we can be satisfied”, he says.
Economic growth in Russia has slowed down rapidly, but on the other hand, consumers are largely free from debt. Asikainen believes that travelling is a permanent part of the lifestyle of the Russian middle-class.
”If long-distance trips do not suit every pocket, Finland could be a good alternative” Asikainen suggests.
Ravaged by the trouble-ridden forest industry, Southeastern Finland is now hoping that tourism and trade could serve as a new support for their economy.
Managing Director Jukka Korkeila from the regional organization of enterprises in Southern Karelia, says that a good way to help the region would be to allow shops to remain open on Sundays.
”Structural funds are likely to bring only a temporary relief. The extending of shop opening hours could be a profitable solution”, he concludes.
The financial crisis can already be seen in Laplandia-Market, as the long truck lines in front of the supermarket have vanished.
The Christmas season is expected to increase the sales of the shop by one-third. The owner of the shop reports that the reasons why Russian customers come to his store include the fact that they trust the quality of goods and that prices can also be cheaper.
Anna Igolkina from Vyborg says that she is in the habit of making shopping trips to Finland.
”I have a large number of relatives, and I have to buy presents for all of them”, Igolkina reports, pointing at her full trolley.
”The main thing is that a present has been bought in Finland. If it is from St. Petersburg it is not so interesting”, she concludes.
Director General Jaakko Lehtonen from MEK says that the number of incoming tourists is predicted to drop next year.
”It would be good if we were able to reach at least a zero growth”, Lehtonen reports.
The trend can already be seen in the number of visitors to Santa Claus’ Main Post Office on the Arctic Circle. The annual number of tourists has already dropped by 13 % and the same pace has continued in December.
Most tourists to Santa’s Workshop Village come from abroad, and the total number for last year was more than 366,000. Over the first weeks of December 2007, the number of visitors was 30,600, while the corresponding 2008 figure by Sunday evening was just some 27,000.
On Saturday the number of charter flights to Rovaniemi from Great Britain and some other countries was 14, and on Sunday 19.
According to Jaakko Lehtonen, tourism is bound to decelerate if families’ earnings decrease. However, even though the number of tourists from far-away countries decreases, domestic travelling and local trips are expected to withstand the recession better.
Previously in HS International Edition:
Finland again attracts record numbers of Russian tourists (2.1.2008)
Finland fears number of Russian tourists may decline (13.3.2006)
Christmas and New Year in Finland again attract Russian tourists (12.12.2005)
Record number of Russian tourists this year (12.11.2008)
Finnish Tourist Board (MEK)
Santa Claus Main Post Office