In Lapland, light is either everywhere or nowhere. In the summer, the sun doesn’t bother popping fully below the horizon, making blackout curtains a compulsory purchase for any light sleepers; in the winter, the dark sky provides the perfect stage for the Northern Lights, the dancing colours that paint the canvas of Lappish landscape.
The lights, or aurora borealis, are one of the main attractions that draw tourists to the region’s capital Rovaniemi.
“Clean nature and intriguing activities, too, but Northern Lights are by far the most sought-after thing,” says Sanna Kärkkäinen, CEO of Visit Rovaniemi.
It’s no wonder. Although for Rovaniemi residents the lights are so commonplace that they might just give them an odd glance on a normal evening, only a fraction of the world’s population lives near the Arctic Circle.
More and more people, particularly Asian travellers, are choosing Finnish Lapland as their tourist destination. It must be partially due to the region’s beauty, but some credit must be given to Finnair’s increasing connections and services (not least with Alitrip) as well as the good word Finland has received from travel bibles such as Lonely Planet and National Geographic.
Rovaniemi is still not quite Rome or Paris, but that’s not even the point. It’s a go-to destination for those who have already been everywhere and want to experience something different.
“This recent growth has been unprecedented in Lapland,” Kärkkäinen notes. “However, as Finland isn’t cheap, there’s no mass tourism. The echo of exclusivity adds to the value and quality we can offer.”
One thing that has changed the tourism industry is the growing number of unique accommodation options. Rovaniemi and its surrounding areas boast igloos, treehouses and five-star hotels that have become global hits through social media and international travel articles.
“I regularly answer phone calls from people telling me they’ve seen a photo of an incredible hotel online and want to find it,” Kärkkäinen tells. “Five years ago, this didn’t happen.”
Checking out the sky from bed
The one-off investments have been huge, but they’re paying off. Petri Palkinen, owner of Snowman World & Glass Villas, has just finished polishing one of the newest accommodation options: hut-shaped cottages with a glass ceiling.
Despite only being on the brink of finishing construction, the first month is pretty fully booked.
“At least we can say we’ve got excellent illustrations,” he says and grins.
Another success story can be heard from Ilkka Länkinen, one of the owners of Arctic Treehouse Hotel, which has been operating since November last year. After opening the doors to the ‘treehouses’, equipped with a huge window overlooking trees and the sky, its views have been featured in international media articles and social media all over the globe.
“We wanted to do something different, not copy anyone else,” Länkinen notes. “It’s very common to have architects and construction professionals visit and tell us they’ve chosen to travel to Rovaniemi only because of Arctic Treehouse Hotel.”
It’s not just the scenery that sets the treehouses apart from the crowd. According to Länkinen, the hotel wants to maintain a level of service quality so high that every single detail is taken into account.
“When a customer asks us to jump, we don’t ask how high – we ask when we can come down,” he says laughingly.
He sounds a lot like Timo Kärki, the director or Arctic Light Hotel, listed as Finland’s best hotel in 2017 by Trivago. The centrally located hotel opened in 2015 after extensive works had been conducted in the protected building that previously comprised flats.
“We mapped every single detail and marked them as protected, as we saw how valuable the history can be, also commercially,” Kärki explains. “It was a lot of work, of course, as we couldn’t just draw a room and repeat it – we had to do the planning 54 times for our 54 rooms.”
Arctic Light also attracts visitors who travel to Rovaniemi exclusively to stay in the hotel. Not all of them want to jump on a snowmobile or be drawn around by huskies.
“Some people search for activities and ride the storm, but we’re looking into developing passivities for those who don’t,” Kärki tells. “A lot of of guests are looking for relaxation, peace and quiet.”
Jumping into action
Despite some wanting to downshift, others can’t get enough of speed and adventure. There’s plenty of that in Rovaniemi, and one of the most popular to-do list items is a husky ride. Bearhill Husky co-owner Valentijn Beets is walking around the area that will soon be “the best kennel in Finland”.
“But hopefully not for long,” Beets says, surprisingly, with the dogs barking in the background in excitement. “We hope someone will then build an even better one. This is a challenge to my colleagues: if I can do it, you can do it, too.”
The Dutchman and his wife Veronika Butinova take tourists of all ages on husky rides across the beautiful landscape of Lapland. The new premise is yet unfinished, but once completed, it’ll be top-notch for customers and employees – and most importantly, dogs.
“We take animal care very seriously, as it’s the foundation of the business,” Beets points out.
According to Beets, the bookings are up in every possible way, and the same goes to other dog safari organisers. Particularly individual travellers are a growing customer group, and it can be seen across the industry.
Whatever travellers choose to do, these days the instagrammability of the location is a factor. The hotels and huskies definitely are worth a shot (pun intended), but getting a proper photo of Northern Lights is a challenging task.
This is why Beyond Arctic was founded. Co-founder Juho Uutela and his colleagues take tourists as far as feasible in their pursuit of the otherworldly phenomenon. They don’t promise Northern Lights for sure – they wouldn’t be half as magical if they chould be switched on with a click of a button – but as the photography expeditions are only for small groups, it’s easy enough to drive the literal extra mile, or 100, if needs be.
“Our goal is that all participant swill learn something new during the tour,” Uutela tells. “It can be about Lapland, Northern Lights, photography or the culture here.”
Arctic summer’s a season, too
Beyond Arctic has photography tours both at night and in the daytime. The landscapes are like from the prettiest postcards, and not only in Rovaniemi: Uutela’s plan is to expand across all Nordic countries.
“We want to become the leading photography tour provider in the region,” he says.
Beyond Arctic also wants to introduce the Arctic summers to outdoors enthusiasts. Next June, Uutela is hoping to help people shoot video and film of the sun just touching the horizon and then popping back up again.
Indeed, the next big challenge for Rovaniemi – and the whole of Lapland, for that matter – is to extend the season, preferably having steady flow of visitors all year round. Visit Rovaniemi’s Sanna Kärkkäinen says there’s a need to define the main draws for summer time.
For some reason, the magnificent Midnight Sun hasn’t been a global hit in the past years.
“There are now signs of Asian travel agencies waking up to the Lappish summertime,” Kärkkäinen says. “It lets people switch day to night and night to day, if they want to try out living like locals!”