Nature is the key attraction, which brings tourists to Finland. The question is, how to develop business and improve sustainability while the demand grows fast.
On the opening day of the annual travel fair in Helsinki, it is clear where the big news is. The pandas have arrived, all the way from China to Ähtäri Zoo in central Finland. A crowd gathers to hear when two cuties will be presented to the public.
However, it is not all about pandas. The fair presents a variety of small and medium size companies with their carefully designed products for travellers.
Would you like to pan gold in the midnight sun and have your catch made into a unique engagement ring? Or spend a night on a desolate island on the coast of the Baltic Sea, with silence and sea birds as your only company?
As it turns out from the statistics, many of us would. Nature is the trend, not just in this year’s Helsinki travel fair, but also in ITB Berlin, the world’s biggest travel fair, where adventure trips and nature-based tourism are among the strongest growing segments of the travel industry.
According to the figures of travel promoting organization Visit Finland, 8.3 million foreign travellers stayed in Finland overnight in 2016. The biggest group comes from Russia, but there are fast growers such as China with 29% increase. The fastest growing region attracting travellers is Lapland, where the number of foreign travellers grew by 18% compared with the previous year.
For Luke’s research professor Liisa Tyrväinen of Luke, these figures, trends and the expected increasing growth rate in future travelling are familiar. Tyrväinen is an expert in nature-based tourism and recreation. She has arrived at the travel fair with her group to present the results of their latest project, which took a deep look at what nature-based travellers look for in Finland and how the business can be developed.
“A conservative estimate is that nature-based tourism comprises about 25% of the Finnish travel business. According to Statistics Finland, nature-based tourism and recreation employ 33 800 man-years. It is a remarkable area already and important in offering job opportunities in our scarcely populated countryside”, Tyrväinen says.
Cooperation is key
Tyrväinen describes the field of nature-based travelling in Finland diverse but scattered.
“We have a lot of small size and even part-time businesses. That is typical for the field here and in other Nordic countries as well.”
For some entrepreneurs, the work is part of their chosen lifestyle.
“In a small company, you are often occupied with the daily activities and there is, clearly, not enough time for business development. However, there are also companies, which actively look for growth. They have possibilities for it, as both foreign and domestic demand exist. It is important to try and enter foreign markets”, Tyrväinen says.
According to Tyrväinen, Finland can attract nature-based travellers from Europe and groups from China, Japan and the rest of Asia. Tyrväinen gives the companies and other actors of the field one advice above all: cooperation.
“The international market is especially hard for small companies. Cooperation in marketing should be enforced and the value of all cooperation should be better identified.”
In the project, scientists surveyed what kind of services and products are interesting for travellers from different cultures and how nature could be packaged as a product for various clientele. The results offer concrete suggestions for developing the sector in Finland as a whole and provide material for companies to develop their own work.
Making silence and space sustainable
At the fair counters, presenters know what makes the deepest impact on foreign travellers in Finland. Silence. Space. In other words, natural areas without people, villages or traffic. On the other hand, Finland is far away from the most metropolitan areas. These facts pose various challenges to sustainability.
“The most important thing is to make travellers enjoy their stay here longer, because flying here causes co2 emissions. Products and services here, on the spot, should be sustainable. In the long run, sustainability cannot be too much emphasised”, Tyrväinen points out.
Another important aspect of sustainability is the multiple use of nature areas. Forestry is a common source of livelihood and most of the forests are owned by family farms. Especially with the rising bioeconomy, forestry and nature-based tourism do not always see eye to eye.
“We have made several landscape preference surveys, which show that foreign and domestic travellers both appreciate natural looking landscapes. Large scale final cuttings are not the environments they want to experience and see. Therefore, we need more dialogue between forestry and travelling industry as well as tools to enable private forest owners to benefit from tourism income.”
Finland has a well-functioning market for wood, but the landscape is not productised – that is, not yet.
“If the landowner does not get compensated for managing the values of landscape and recreation, there will not be enough interest to take care of them. Funding models, where for example tourism companies and travellers actively promote environmental management and contribute to its funding, could be a part of the solution. In the future, tourism enterprises should reflect their role and responsibility in protecting nature and landscape values”, Tyrväinen says.
The project has gathered a remarkable amount of information about the state of nature-based tourism business and several seeds for future development. According to the audience in the fair, the ideas are well welcomed. The network of information grows to involve entrepreneurs, governmental representatives as well as scientists.
Text: Marjatta Sihvonen