Santa's homeland faces harsh winter as tourists kept away
Between November and March, Finland's far north usually throngs with international holidaymakers who come to experience a snowy wonderland of reindeer rides, ice castles and the "real" Santa's grotto.
But despite record visitor numbers in recent years, the coronavirus shutdown will leave many of Finnish Lapland's tourism businesses facing ruin this winter.
Many fear that government moves to ease travel restrictions in the Nordic country will not go far enough to offset the damage.
"We'll be bankrupt after December if we don't get any bookings," tour operator Sini Jin told AFP from Rovaniemi, an Arctic Circle town that markets itself as "the official hometown of Santa Claus".
Jin has run Nordic Unique Travels for five years, offering Northern Lights safaris and expeditions into the Arctic wilderness to thousands of travellers from Europe and Asia every season.
"Now we've had one or two bookings a week, and mostly we're just doing refunds," Jin said.
Her firm will only employ "two or three" seasonal staff this year instead of the normal 80.
Jin's company received emergency financial aid after the government put aside over a billion euros ($1.2 bn) to help businesses, but it has not been enough to compensate for the lack of tourists.
"Everything we've worked for will be gone so quickly if we don't get help."
Her predicament is shared by tourist companies across Finland's vast Lapland region, where the sector supports 10,000 jobs and generates one billion euros of annual revenue.
A tourist board survey found that without international visitors this winter, around 60 percent of tourism companies expect to lose at least half their turnover and three-quarters would have to lay off staff.
"We're not hopeful of getting any significant bookings," Kaj Erkkila, managing director of Husky Park, told AFP.
The 10-person family firm has been a popular dog sledding destination for "many decades" and keeps 109 Siberian huskies.
"If this winter's revenue stays low, we might not be able to operate in 2021-22 either, as maintaining the dogs is very expensive," Erkkila said.
Tourist board head Nina Forsell said the situation is make-or-break for many firms.
"If companies go down this winter it will take a long time for them to rise up again," she told AFP.
- 'A big disappointment' -
While many EU countries are tightening lockdown rules as infections rise, last week Finland's centre-left government loosened travel restrictions to boost the tourism industry.
Yet the measures have been branded "a big disappointment" by industry bodies in Lapland, who say the rules are unworkable.
Arrivals from countries such as the UK and France, which are among the largest visitor groups to Lapland, can avoid quarantine if they visit for less than three days, and travel with an organised group.
But tourism bosses say many trips to Lapland are longer -- and these would require visitors to quarantine and undergo further testing.
"Are these measures enough to meet demand and keep businesses going here in Lapland? I'm not convinced," Sanna Karkkainen, head of Visit Rovaniemi, told AFP.
Tourist providers worked with health experts to draw up safety procedures, which they argue should allow for quarantine rules to be relaxed.
Finland's corona infection rates remained among Europe's lowest over the summer, and of the 9,000 confirmed infections just 243 have been recorded in Lapland.
"We're not giving up and we're trying to get the politicians to see there is a better way," tourist board head Nina Forsell said.
- Still open for business -
Some large companies, such as Rovaniemi's Santa Park attraction, have already decided not to open this winter.
The park usually employs 400 staff and welcomes 120,000 visitors each season.
But many smaller providers say they will do all they can to stay open for business, and hope the government will allow for more international visitors.
"We are dealing with the highest possible demand for Lapland travel, that's the heartbreaking thing," Sanna Karkkainen said.
"We really need this industry in order to build a future for Lapland, and letting it go is not an option."