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  • Writer's pictureJosé-Carlos García-Rosell

How did Christmas tourism in Lapland begin?

There has always been the belief that Santa Claus lives some where in the North. People in the U.S. have believed that Santa’s home is located in the North Pole, while for the Danes, he lives in Greenland. The Brits shared the same belief as the Danes until Christmas tours to Finland started to be sold in the U.K. in the late mid-1980s. Since then, Brits have known that Santa or Father Christmas as they called him lives in Finnish Lapland. But 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 fairy tale and Santa Claus as its ruler began to appear in Christmas newspapers published in the early 20th century. Although these accounts made reference to possible dwelling places of Santa Claus in Lapland, there was no common agreement on which was the actual location of his residence. At least, not until 1927, when Markus Rautio “Uncle Markus”, a famous Finnish radio journalist and presenter, announced in his children's radio program that Santa Claus lives in Korvatunturi (Earn Mountain). Although Korvatunturi was among the many possible locations under speculation, it was through Uncle Markus that the idea of ​​Korvatunturi as Santa's home became established as part of Finnish Christmas folklore. While Korvatunturi was a perfect location for a fairy tale - far away and hiden from civilization, it was not the ideal place for receiving visitors.

The relocation of Santa's home from Korvatunturi to Rovaniemi was first thought by journalist Niilo Tarvajärvi who after visiting Disneyland in the late 1950s got the idea of building a Christmas theme park in Lapland. To realize his idea, he founded Joulumaa Oy (Christmas Land Ltd.) in 1967. His plan was to situate Christmas Land and the home of Santa Claus in 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 did never materialize. Nevertheless, the idea of ​​Lapland as a location for Christmas tourism stayed around until the mid-1980s when it finally started to be developed. At that time, the Governor of Lapland, Asko Oinas, declared the entire Finnish province as Christmas Land, setting up a Christmas delegation to develop Christmas tourism as a new tourism product for Lapland. The Finnish Tourism Promotion Centre (currently Visit Finland) decided to support the Christmas Land project, because Santa Claus was seen as an important element of the Finnish tourism brand.

Christmas Land on the Arctic Circle

The Arctic Circle in Rovaniemi was chosen as the location for Christmas Land. The decision was easy considering the popularity of the Arctic Circle as a tourism attraction. Although local actors in Lapland played a key role in the development of ​​Christmas tourism, it should also be noted that Britain laid the foundations for its success. Steve Mitchell, a Finnair's British sales representative, who visited Lapland in 1972, got the idea that the entire world should know about Lapland. To that end, he started promoting Lapland through a writing competition for children in the early 1980s. The winners of the competition (six children) went on a prize trip to Lapland to meet Santa Claus. The competition was organized in co-operation between Finnair and a commercial radio station in London. The competition not only helped Mitchell feature Lapland and Santa Claus on British television, but it also brought hundreds of representatives from advertising agencies to Rovaniemi.

Besides the work done by Mitchell, the most prominent milestone of Christmas tourism was the historical Concorde flight to Lapland on Christmas Day in 1984. Although the flight brought less than a hundred British tourists for a day visit to Rovaniemi, the landing of the Concorde in Rovaniemi Airport marked the beginning of charter flights to Lapland during the Christmas season. The Santa Claus Office was opened in the Arctic Circle in 1985 and thanks to effective marketing and numerous international media visits, the number of tourists grew steadily through the 1990s. For a long time, Christmas tourism was very strongly British, but in early 2000s the share of visitors from other countries started to increase. In the next blog post, I will tell about the developments that took place in the 1990s and 2000s and how they contributed to positioning the Arctic Circle and the entire 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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