Santa and his reindeers may be taking their post-Christmas rest up in Finnish Lapland, but the tourists keep on coming to this part of the world. Gary Noakes reports.
The lure of the Northern Lights means visitors are still heading to the Arctic Circle wilderness long after the sleigh has been packed away.
Lapland is lapping it up and one of the key drivers behind the region’s popularity is Finnair.
This winter, the airline introduced flights from Gatwick, operating twice a week to Ivalo, home to Europe’s most northerly ski resort; together with a weekly flight to Kittila, about 90 miles south as the sleigh (or Airbus) flies. Both places are synonymous with Christmas-themed tourism and their popularity means Finnair has already confirmed the flights’ continuation next winter.
The UK connections are part of a 15% Lapland capacity increase that will see Finnair offer 482,000 seats there in 2018-19, either direct or as an hour’s flight from Helsinki.
“We dare to say that the Nordics are hot,” says Finnair’s chief commercial officer Juha Jarvinen, who estimates that on some of the busiest weekends there can be up to 30 UK departures a day to Lapland, with Finnair now perhaps belatedly among them.
He is quick to stress that the region’s appeal stretches way beyond Santa and skiing, and is different things to different nationalities.
“It’s not the Alps, but you can do so much more and you have the Aurora. From the Helsinki region, people go there to party; it is famous for its nightlife. But we’re seeing steady growth in interest from Asia – Lapland was the top destination for Finnair’s Chinese passengers in 2016-17. Part of the appeal is the complete silence. That’s an experience people, especially from the big Asian cities, feel very strongly about.”
Further ahead, there may be scope for year-round flights from the UK. The ski season, for example, stretches from late October to mid-May and then there is a period when the sun does not set.
“The focus is to develop year-round tourism with the Midnight Sun. Accommodation is very affordable in summer,” Jarvinen adds.
Finland’s position on the globe means it is not just blessed with Lapland, it is also an ideal staging post for flights to Asia, which take the shorter polar route. Cheekily, Finnair actually takes sushi to the Japanese, boasting that from sea to Asian restaurants takes only 34 hours.
Finnair’s Asian network covers 19 destinations, including, this winter, a twice-weekly Goa flight, making it the only European airline to offer the Indian destination as a scheduled route. There are also 21 fllghts a week to Thailand (Bangkok, Krabi andPhuket), while next summer, Nanjing becomes Finnair’s seventh China route.
Finnair is also part of the oneworld joint venture with British Airways and Iberia on routes to Japan. “We are the biggest European airline to Japan and we have 38 flights a week to China. We see great potential. We had a target to double Asia between 2010 and 2020, but we will reach that in 2018,” says Jarvinen.
Finnair believes it is ideally positioned to capitalise on the growing taste for travel in Asia. The Europe to Asia market, he says, is growing at 6% a year, but now totals just 13.6 million seats – a tiny proportion of the potential. Similarly, the market to south-east Asia totals 16.8 million and is growing at 5% annually.
“There are roughly 5-6 million new passengers from China every year travelling internationally. There is growth to be had.”
The message about the Asian connections is also catching on in the UK. Up to half of all Finnair passengers from the UK connect to another flight at Helsinki.
“One reason why we have been successful in the UK is oneworld – passengers get the same Avios benefits on city pairs to Asia. You can get a very good deal from the UK and the flying time is competitive – Heathrow to Bangkok is 12 hours and Helsinki to Bangkok is 10 hours, so via Helsinki there is very little time difference.”
Transferring at Helsinki has another advantage, he believes. “The majority of flight changes in the Gulf are in the middle of the night. With us, flights leave early evening or by midnight. You can get a full night’s sleep.”
Finnair has one other trick up its sleeve. Its morning flight from Heathrow is on one of the carrier’s 11 wide-body Airbus A350s, so the longhaul aircraft experience begins there. Inbound, this flight connects with Hong Kong and Singapore services.
As well as the London connection, Finnair serves Manchester twice daily and Edinburgh nine times a week. There is more to come – Edinburgh goes year-round from March and Jarvinen says double daily from the Scottish capital is a target, and Birmingham “is definitely on our radar”.
The state-owned airline exceeded 12 million passengers last year, a million more than in 2016 and saw “record profifts”. However, there are limits: Finnair grew capacity by 9% last year and this year will add 15%, which even Jarvinen admits is not sustainable. “Normal market growth is 4-5%. You can’t keep on doing that forever, but we strongly believe there is market growth, so we are comfortable with this.”
Looking further ahead, Jarvinen has broader horizons, believing that geography is in Finnair’s favour even when it comes to flights to North America.
“This is the shortest route from the Middle East to North America, it goes over Finland and the Nordic region, so there is potential in the future.”
The Finnish government clearly agrees, as Helsinki airport, which handled 18 million passengers in 2017 – more than three times the population of Finland – is currently being expanded to cope with 30 million, including 16 gates for long-haul aircraft, double the current number.
The spanner in the works is, of course, the Gulf carriers. Jarvinen shows a map with what the airline refers to as the Gulf line, a gentle downward curve across the globe that straddles the Middle East hubs. Below it is their territory, so Finnair will not, for example, cross into Africa any time soon.
“Our route planning strategy is very much focused on anything above that line,” he says.
Finnair might not be crossing the Gulf line, but with help from Santa and those Asian routes, the Finn line is getting broader.
482,000 seats to Lapland in 2018-19.
Routes to 19 Asian destinations.
Carried more than 12 million passengers in 2017.
Targeted growth of 15% in 2018.