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Finnish travel industry goes virtual during pandemic

Wish you were here? Modern technology brings Finland right into your living room.

Visit Finland / Jussi Hellstén

Finnish travel players are finding ways to engage tourists no matter their physical location as the country waits out the coronavirus pandemic together with the rest of the world.

Finland’s popularity as a tourist destination reached a new record high in 2019, when foreign tourists chalked up more than seven million overnight stays, netting a total of 483 million euros for accommodation establishments. The country’s booming travel sector was expected to maintain the growth momentum, and 2020 was all set to become a banner year.

And then COVID-19 happened, posing enormous challenges to the global tourism industry in the form of closed borders and travel bans.

Virtual tours to the Savonlinna and Saimaa regions are a result of co-operation between Eco Conscious Japan and Finnish travel company SaimaaLife. Image: SaimaaLife

Battling for survival, destinations around the globe were forced to promptly start figuring out ways to keep home-bound travellers hooked. As the world went online relying on technology more than ever before, virtual experiences soon proved to be the best format for satisfying people’s wanderlust remotely.

Known for its technology, Finland couldn’t stand aside from these new challenges and opportunities. In fact, the country’s capital had started harnessing the potential of virtual reality (VR) in travel long before the pandemic, with the launch of Virtual Helsinki, the capital’s digital twin, in 2018 a prime example.

This spring, the platform also formed the foundation for what was destined to become Finland’s biggest online event yet, a live VR gig by local rap duo JVG held on May Day eve and virtually attended by 700 000 viewers, with subsequent streaming bringing that figure up to 1.4 million. Another VR gig was held by pop star Alma on Helsinki Day, 12 June.

In pursuit of virtual happiness

Helsinki is not the only Finnish destination that is catering to an increased interest in virtual travel while physical travel is still largely off-limits to much of the world. Savonlinna and Saimaa, both in Eastern Finland, recently announced the launch of virtual tours specially designed for Japanese travellers, who are believed to be particularly keen on virtual experiences.

Visit Finland also opted for shifting its successful Rent a Finn campaign from the physical to the online world. Whereas last year foreign travellers were invited to the country to learn the secrets to Finnish happiness first-hand, this year happiness tips have been shared with the world via weekly live broadcasts and online sessions.

“During these uncertain times, we want to give people the opportunity to learn about the secrets of Finnish happiness regardless of place and time,” statedPaavo Virkkunen, executive director of Visit Finland at Business Finland.

The new digital approach has helped to make the Finnish virtual happiness guides seen and heard by a much wider audience than before.

New ideas are born

Reinventing oneself, however, is never easy. Faced with a massive stress test, many local companies in the travel and tourism industry were challenged to come up with new ideas and operating models to pull through the crisis and stay afloat.

Halipuu, a Lapland-based company that under normal circumstances offers its clients relaxing tours in the woods on top of the unique opportunity to adopt an Arctic tree, has released Forest in your Pocket, a mobile application enabling people to virtually break free from the turmoil of their everyday lives with experiences, soundscapes and live streams from the family-owned forest.

“This new app allows us to reach people around the world and give them a moment of relief from the stress of being isolated and stuck inside their homes,” explained founder Riitta Raekallio-Wunderink.

The Forest in Your Pocket app by Halipuu allows everyone across the world to get their portion of tree hugs. Image: Halipuu

Doerz, a platform that assists travellers in finding and booking offbeat real-life experiences with locals across Finland and beyond, had to get creative, too, after seeing a dramatic drop in sales in March and April. Not willing to surrender without a fight, the company found a “100-per cent corona-safe” way to carry on by establishing a marketplace for virtual experience services. The idea became an instant hit.

“May was suddenly the best month in our entire history. We set a record for both website traffic and sales,” founder and CEO Tomi Virtanen said, adding that location-independent products will continue to hold their value even after the travel restrictions are eased.

“Virtual products are not only easy, but also environmentally friendly.”

Endless possibilities

While for many travel businesses turning to virtual offerings during the pandemic was somewhat a compelled measure, Virtual Traveller, an online platform for sharing and viewing 360-degree videos from fascinating places in all corners of the world, has been a steadfast advocate of virtual travel and its ecological benefits from the get-go.

Founded in 2016, the company believes that VR technology could be an eco-friendly solution to the problem of over-tourism and that popular destinations could use the platform to introduce less-travelled paths and show off their hidden gems.

As 360-degree cameras and VR glasses are becoming increasingly affordable, more and more users are able to contribute content to the platform and enjoy other travellers’ adventures from the comfort of their own homes.

“360 virtual reality isn’t mainstream yet, but it’s headed that way, as it’s a great media for engaging people,” noted CEO Donna Kivirauma. “You can surprise people time and time again, because there’s always another angle.”

The possibilities are virtually endless.

A cultural spotlight

The largest share of tourists to Finland have long come from neighbouring Russia. So, how to engage this significant group once COVID-19 scuttled everyone’s travel plans? Visit Finland live streamed virtual tours from Finnish museums and cultural sights on its channel, Neighbour in the North, on the OK.ru platform over three weeks in June. Over 2.5 million views (and counting) have since been recorded. Watch for yourself here.

By: Zhanna Koiviola