(CNN) – Santa sits safely behind plexiglass. Elves maintain a safe social distance while wearing surgical masks.
It’s a very festive mood in 2020 but with a holiday season like no other fast approaching, Lapland tourism companies believe this is the best way to save Christmas and save yourself after a brutal year where visitor numbers fell from record highs in 2019.
Finland’s new quarantine rules, due to come into force on November 23, have helped them. Despite a Europe-wide second wave of coronavirus cases leading to new bans, 72-hour visits to the country are possible without the need for quarantine.Tourists from the 26-country Schengen visa area of the EU and Europe are allowed to travel as long as they take a Covid test 72 hours before departure and provide evidence that it is negative. Longer stays require self-isolation and a second test. However, the rules are subject to change as the Finnish government reformulates its plans at the time of writing.
“Christmas is definitely not canceled,” says Sanna Kärkkäinen, CEO of Visit Rovaniemi, the official home of Santa Claus high above the Arctic Circle in Finnish Lapland.
“This year will be different from previous years, but I’m sure that the travelers who come here will of course have great fun.”
According to Kärkkäinen, companies in the area have been working tirelessly since the summer to prepare for the holidays to make sure they strictly follow health and safety protocols.
“Together with the hospital district of Lapland, we have created a Covid-safe travel model. It is a large network of tourism providers and destinations here in Lapland that everyone has been involved in.
“We try very hard to act in this way and this is of course one of our signals to tourists that we are doing everything we can to make tourism safe and secure.”
Find a balance
It’s not what you think To understand the heart of Rovaniemi, Finland, step away from the city center and into the silence of the forest where reindeer rule.
In addition to Santa Claus sitting behind Plexiglas and his elves wearing PPE, Kärkkäinen says that the lack of large groups and the concentration on individual groups means that visitors to Santa’s workshop have no problems maintaining social distance.
“In a way, the lower numbers help us develop the services so that we can really combine the health interventions with all of the services we offer,” she says.
Domestic tourists have already headed north to see Santa Claus. Kärkkäinen reports that the experience was broadly similar to previous years.
However, Kärkkäinen fears that the strict no-quarantine time limit could lead some tourists to choose to stay away.
“Seventy-two hours is a fairly short stay in Lapland,” she says. “They usually last between three and four days. Our goal has always been for people to enjoy the area and the destination to the fullest, which means stays tend to be longer, which of course means that travel is more sustainable.”
Even so, operators have tweaked their schedules, crammed sleigh rides, hoarse experiences, and the chance to see the Northern Lights before getting travelers back to the airport in time for a quick departure.
Alistair McLean, Managing Director of The Artisan Travel Company, which runs tailor-made trips to the region, is impressed with Finland’s adaptation to the situation.
“The Finnish government in particular has worked very closely with tourism officials from Lapland to strike the right balance between controlling the expansion and running their vital tourism industry safely,” he says.
The nature of outdoor activities in Lapland makes it easier to keep a safe distance while usually only spending time with those you traveled with in the country, he adds.
“We cannot guarantee with certainty that Santa Claus or his elves will not wear a mask,” says McLean.
“We believe that after the incredible way everyone has adjusted to the new normal of 2020, a truly memorable, magical end-of-year vacation will be incredibly rewarding – even with a few extra safeguards.”
Simon Lynch, Sales Manager at Scott Dunn, is similarly optimistic.
“The coming season looks promising for Finnish and Swedish Lapland,” he said.
“We are encouraged by the numerous inquiries we have had for these two destinations, both from families looking for the ultimate bucket-list trip to see Santa and the reindeer during the holiday season, and couples who are Do so looking for alternative winter destinations for a secluded romantic getaway under the Northern Lights, where they may have previously opted for a ski focused winter trip in other parts of Europe. “
Meanwhile in Sweden
Meet the man who could give Santa Claus a run for his money with his soaring sleigh.
On the other side of the Swedish border, Schengen, EU and UK visitors are not subject to quarantine rules. And the isolated nature of the region means it’s possible to take a relatively safe break there, even if Santa Claus actually lives in Finland.
“We are a travel destination with large areas, lots of small and private accommodations and mainly outdoor activities that are offered to small groups or private companies,” says Anna Skogh of the Swedish Lapland Visitors Board. “That was an advantage in adapting to a more socially distant experience for visitor safety.
Even so, Skogh is not optimistic about visitor numbers.
Last year there were record numbers of visitors in Lapland.
JONATHAN NACKSTRAND / AFP via Getty Images
“It’s not looking good for this winter. Long-distance travelers cannot travel, and travel restrictions for the nearby markets change from week to week. Swedish Lapland is particularly hard hit because we are such an international travel destination, especially for the winter season.
“The signs are that people are keen to travel here, but getting there is challenging given the circumstances.”
She says requests for direct charter flights to the region have increased, undermining the need to change aircraft in Stockholm. However, given the difficulties faced by flight operators, this remains an unlikely proposition for everyone but the wealthiest winter enthusiasts.
It’s Santa Claus on the line
Christmas is big business in Rovaniemi, Finland, but Santa Claus wasn’t the first to spark tourism in this Arctic Circle city.
Some operators have decided that with ever changing travel restrictions, moving to a virtual approach is the way to go. After a year of video calls to work and catching up with the family, it seems obvious that Santa should be available on screen rather than in person.
UK-based holiday break specialist Santa’s Lapland is offering video calling to Santa, Live from Lapland for £ 85 (US $ 111) for a family of up to four children. The calls last 10 minutes and are moderated by an elf who takes the family on a tour of Santa’s hut before meeting the big man himself.
The company stopped its trips in 2020 due to increasingly strict travel policies from the UK to mainland Europe.
“With increasing restrictions across the UK, many of us have wondered how we can keep the magic of Christmas 2020 alive,” said Paul Carter, CEO of Santa’s Lapland. “We want to help make it unforgettable by giving families the opportunity to meet Santa Claus comfortably and safely from home.
“While Christmas doesn’t compare to the excitement of traveling to Lapland to visit Santa Claus in his snowy hut, where the reindeer are real and the northern lights dance across the night sky. Families can now still enjoy a taste of the real Lappish Magic this Christmas. “
Looking to 2021 and beyond
Many visitors have postponed their trip to Lapland until 2021.
JONATHAN NACKSTRAND / AFP via Getty Images
Santa’s Lapland is already offering bookings for 2021 and says that many of its customers who lost this year have simply rebooked for next Christmas.
Julie Kenyon of Lapland Experiences says this has become popular with those looking to get excited about something in 12 months.
“Some of our tour operator partners have completely discontinued their Santa program for 2020 and moved most of their customers to 2021. Therefore, it is important for people planning to visit Lapland in December 2021 to be fully booked now as demand is next will be very high I am moving customers already after 2021 and the places for this type of trip are limited.
“If 2020 trips are not possible, the focus will shift to 2021 and I will make sure that all of our 2020 customers are booked again. I advise anyone interested to book their Lapland vacation as soon as possible for next year . “”
In Rovaniemi, where even the city’s street map is shaped like a reindeer, Sanna Kärkkäinen is also looking for a boost until 2021.
“We are definitely looking ahead to the next season and the next winter season ’21 / 22. I think that will be the biggest goal now. As soon as the world recovers, I think our development with tourism will be good again.”
For now, the rescue of Christmas depends on Finland maintaining its new travel restrictions and intrepid Santa fans looking past the plexiglass and preparing for a Covid test before the flight.
Only time will tell if Christmas 2020 has really not been canceled.