(CNN) – Santa sits safely behind plexiglass. Elves maintain a safe social distance while wearing surgical masks.
It’s a very 2020 year with festive joy, but with a festive season never approaching, tourism operators in Lapland believe it is the best way to save Christmas and save themselves after a tough year that has seen visitor numbers drop from record highs in 2019.
“Christmas has definitely not been canceled,” says Sana Krkainen, CEO of Visit Rovaniemi, the official home of Santa Claus, at the height of the Arctic Circle in Finnish Lapland.
“This year will be different from previous years, but I am sure that travelers who come here at the end of the day will definitely find a lot of fun.”
Kärkkäinen says businesses in the area have been working hard since the summer to prepare for the holidays, ensuring they follow the health and safety protocols to the letter.
“In collaboration with the Lapland Hospital District, we have created a Covid-safe travel model. It’s a large network of tourism providers and destinations here in Lapland and everyone has got involved.
“We are very committed to operating in this way and this of course is one of our signals to tourists that we are doing our best to make tourism safe and secure.”
Strike a balance
Not what you think. To understand the heart of Rovaniemi, Finland, turn away from the city center to the tranquility of the forest, where reindeer rule.
In addition to Santa Claus sitting behind plexiglass with his side wearing PPE, Karkainen says the lack of large groups and the focus on individual groups means that visitors to Santa’s workshop will have no problems ensuring social distancing.
“Somehow the lower numbers help us develop services to a level where we can really mix and match health measures with all of the services we provide,” she says.
Local tourists were already making their way north to see Santa, with Kärkkäinen reporting that the experience was very similar to previous years.
However, Kärkkäinen fears that the strict time limit for not being quarantined could mean that some tourists are choosing to stay away.
“72 hours is a very short stay in Lapland,” she says. “They usually last between three to four days. Our goal has always been to get people to fully enjoy the area and destination, which means stays tend to be longer, which of course means trips are more sustainable.”
In spite of this, operators have adjusted schedules, overcrowding on sledges, Husky experiences and a chance to see the aurora borealis before returning passengers to the airport in time for a quick departure.
Alistair McLean, managing director of The Artisan Travel Company, which runs custom tours to the region, says he admires how Finland has adapted to the situation.
“The Finnish government in particular is working very closely with tourism representatives from Lapland to strike a delicate balance between controlling the spread and allowing their vital tourism industry to operate safely,” he says.
He adds that the nature of the outdoor activities on offer in Lapland means that it is easier to maintain a safe distance, while you usually only spend time with those you have traveled with in the country.
“We cannot guarantee with certainty that Father Christmas or his dwarves will not wear a mask,” says McLean.
“We believe that after the amazing way everyone has adapted to the new normal for 2020, a truly unforgettable magical holiday at the end of the year will be incredibly rewarding – even with some extra safety precautions.”
Simon Lynch, Scott Dunn’s director of sales, is likewise optimistic.
“Next season looks promising for Finnish and Swedish Lapland,” he says.
“We were encouraged by the wave of inquiries that we made regarding both destinations, both from families looking for the ultimate wish-list excursion during the holidays to see Santa and the reindeer, as well as from couples looking for alternative winter destinations for a romantic vacation far under the Northern Lights, where they may have previously chosen an excursion. Winter focuses on skiing elsewhere in Europe. “
Meanwhile in Sweden
Meet the guy who could give Santa Claus a run for his money with a high-flying sleigh.
Crossing the border in Sweden, visitors to Schengen, the European Union and the United Kingdom are not subject to quarantine rules. And the secluded nature of the area means it is possible to enjoy a relatively safe vacation there, even if Santa already lives in Finland.
“We are a destination with large areas, lots of small and private residences and most outdoor activities that are offered to small groups or private companies,” says Anna Skog, from the Swedish Lapland Visitor Council. “This has been an advantage when adapting to a more socially distant experience for the safety of visitors.
However, Skog is not optimistic about visitor numbers.
Last year saw record numbers of visitors to Lapland.
Jonathan Nackstrand / AFP via Getty Images
“It doesn’t look good this winter. Long-distance travelers cannot travel, travel restrictions for the nearest markets change week by week. Swedish Lapland is particularly affected because we are an international destination, especially in winter.”
“The indications that we are getting are that people are very interested in traveling here, but under the prevailing circumstances it is challenging to achieve this.”
She says there has been an increase in inquiries about direct charter flights to the area, undermining the need to change planes in Stockholm. However, with the airline operators struggling, that remains an unlikely proposition for everyone except for the richest winter lovers.
It’s Santa Claus at stake
Christmas is big business in Rovaniemi, Finland, but Santa Claus isn’t the first to spark tourism in this Arctic city.
Some operators have decided that, with the backdrop of ever-changing travel restrictions, switching to a default approach is the way to go. After a year of video calls to work and connecting with family, it seems clear that Santa Claus should be available on screen, not in person.
UK-based festive holiday specialist Santa’s Lapland is offering “Santa, Live from Lapland” video calls for £ 85 ($ 111) for a family of up to four children. The calls last 10 minutes and are hosted by a dwarf who takes the family on a tour of Santa’s cabin before meeting the big guy himself.
The company has suspended flights for 2020 following increasingly strict travel restrictions from the UK to mainland Europe.
“With restrictions increasing across the UK, many of us are wondering how we’re going to keep the magic of Christmas 2020 alive,” says Paul Carter, CEO of Santa Lapland. “We intend to help make him remember him, by giving families the opportunity to meet Santa in the comfort and safety of their home.
“While Christmas cannot be compared to the sheer excitement of traveling to Lapland to visit Santa in his snowy cabin, where reindeer are real, and the aurora dances across the night sky. Families will now be able to enjoy the true magic of Lapland this Christmas.”
Looking forward to 2021 and beyond
Many visitors have delayed their trip to Lapland until 2021.
Jonathan Nackstrand / AFP via Getty Images
Santa Lapland has already started offering reservations for 2021 and says many of its customers who have lost out this year have simply rebooked them for next Christmas.
Julie Kenyon of Lapland Experiences says this has become popular with those keen to have something to look forward to within 12 months.
“Some of our tour operator partners have suspended the 2020 Santa program altogether and are moving most of their clients into 2021. So, for people who want to visit Lapland in December 2021, it is important that they book now because the demand will be very high a year later. Already to 2021 and places are limited for this type of trip.
“If the 2020 trips are not possible, the focus will shift to 2021 and I will make sure that all of our customers are re-booked for 2020, and I will advise anyone interested to book their Lapland vacation as soon as possible for the next year.”
In Rovaniemi, where even a city street scheme in the shape of a reindeer, Sanna Kärkkäinen is also looking to 2021 for a boost.
“We are definitely looking positively to next season and next winter’s season, 21/22. I think that will be the biggest goal now. Once the world recovers, I think our development with tourism will be good again.”
For now, saving Christmas depends on Finland keeping new travel restrictions in place, and daring Santa fans to look beyond plexiglass and set off on a pre-flight Covid test.
Only time will tell if Christmas 2020 hasn’t really been canceled.