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  • Writer's pictureJosé-Carlos García-Rosell

How did Christmas tourism in Lapland begin?

Updated: Dec 26, 2023

There has always been the belief that Santa Claus lives somewhere in the North. In the United States, the prevalent belief is that Santa's residence is situated at the North Pole, while Danes envision him living in Greenland. A similar belief was shared by the British until the late mid-1980s when Christmas tours to Finland became popular in the U.K. Since that time, Brits have come to understand that Santa, also known as Father Christmas, calls Finnish Lapland his home. This shift in perception prompts the question: Why Finnish Lapland?

Photo: ©Visit Rovaniemi (Rovaniemi Tourism & Marketing Ltd.)

The tale of the Finnish Santa as the cornerstone for Christmas tourism

Descriptions of Finnish Lapland as a winter wonderland and Santa Claus as its enchanting ruler first emerged in Christmas newspapers during the early 20th century. While these narratives hinted at potential abodes for Santa Claus in Lapland, consensus on the precise location of his residence remained elusive. Not until 1927 did clarity emerge, thanks to Markus Rautio, also known as “Uncle Markus”, a famous Finnish radio journalist and presenter. In his children's radio program, he declared that Santa Claus resides in Korvatunturi (Earn Mountain). While Korvatunturi was initially one of the speculated locations for Santa's residence, it was through Uncle Markus that the idea of ​​Korvatunturi as Santa's home became established as part of Finnish Christmas folklore. Despite its fairy tale qualities, being a remote and secluded haven, Korvatunturi was not the most practical choice for welcoming visitors.

The idea of relocating Santa's residence from Korvatunturi to Rovaniemi was initially conceived by journalist Niilo Tarvajärvi. Inspired by his visit to Disneyland in the late 1950s, he envisioned the creation of a Christmas theme park in Lapland. To realize his idea, Takajärvi established Joulumaa Oy (Christmas Land Ltd.) in 1967. His vision included locating Christmas Land and Santa Claus's home on Ounasvaara, a hill next to the town of Rovaniemi.

Photo: Ounasvaara ©Visit Rovaniemi (Rovaniemi Tourism & Marketing Ltd.)

Despite Tarvajärvi’s initial enthusiasm and investment, Christmas Land never materialized. Nevertheless, the idea of ​​Lapland as a Christmas tourism destination persisted until the mid-1980s when it finally began to take shape and see development. During that period, the Governor of Lapland, Asko Oinas, officially declared the entire Finnish province as Christmas Land. In a strategic move, he established a Christmas delegation to spearhead the development of Christmas tourism as a new tourism product for Lapland. Recognizing the significance of Santa Claus as a key element of the Finnish tourism brand, the Finnish Tourism Promotion Centre (now known as Visit Finland) decided to endorse and support the Christmas Land project.

Christmas Land on the Arctic Circle

The decision to establish Christmas Land at Arctic Circle in Rovaniemi in Rovaniemi was a natural choice, given the site's already established popularity as a tourism attraction. While local contributors in Lapland played a pivotal role in shaping Christmas tourism, it's worth noting that Britain played a foundational role in its success. In 1972, Steve Mitchell, a British sales representative for Finnair, was inspired during his visit to Lapland with the vision that the entire world should know about this Nordic region. In pursuit of this goal, he started the promotion of Lapland through a children's writing competition in the early 1980s. The six children, who won the competition, were awarded a special trip to Lapland to meet Santa Claus. This contest was a collaborative effort between Finnair and a commercial radio station in London. Beyond showcasing Lapland and Santa Claus on British television, Mitchell's initiative attracted significant attention, drawing in numerous representatives from advertising agencies to Rovaniemi.

In addition to Mitchell's efforts, the most prominent milestone of Christmas tourism was the historical Concorde flight to Lapland on Christmas Day in 1984. Despite bringing fewer than a hundred British tourists for a brief visit to Rovaniemi, the landing of the Concorde at Rovaniemi Airport marked the beginning of charter flights to Lapland during the Christmas season. The inauguration of the Santa Claus Office at the Arctic Circle in 1985, coupled with strategic marketing initiatives and numerous international media visits, propelled a steady increase in tourist numbers throughout the 1990s. Initially dominated by British tourists, Christmas tourism experienced a shift in the early 2000s as the influx of visitors from other countries began to rise. In the upcoming blog post, I will delve into the developments of the 1990s and 2000s, exploring how these changes played a crucial role in establishing the Arctic Circle and the city of Rovaniemi as a top Christmas tourism destination.

This blog post is based on the introduction chapter of the book "Joulu ainainen? Näkökulmia Rovaniemen joulumatkailuun (Always Christmas? Perspectives on Rovaniemi's Christmas tourism)" co-edited with Heli Ilola and Maria Hakkarainen and published by the Multidimensional Tourism Institute (MTI), University of Lapland in 2014.


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