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Christmas in danger as Santa's Lapland home feels pandemic chill

ROVANIEMI, Finland (Reuters) - Christmas is coming, but in Santa’s home village in northern Finland, the COVID pandemic means that the flocks of tourists who usually start to make merry in Rovaniemi at this time of year are not.

Finland has adopted some of the strictest travel restrictions in Europe, despite its low level of infections, meaning most foreigners cannot enter the country.

The northern part of Finland, where many businesses rely on tourists flying in to meet Santa Claus, see the Northern Lights or take a snowmobile safari, has seen visitor numbers plummet.

In August 2020, foreign tourist numbers were down 78% from a year earlier, according to travel industry data from Business Finland.

“For local businesses, definitely, Christmas is in danger,” Sanna Karkkainen, managing director of Visit Rovaniemi tourist board, said. “Christmas itself will come, but how merry it will be, that’s the question mark.”

Finland escaped the worst effects of the pandemic in spring, opting for a strict lockdown, which included isolating the capital, Helsinki.

Now, as in much of Europe, infections are on the rise again, hitting a daily record earlier this month, and the government is considering new measures to contain the spread of the virus.

Slideshow ( 5 images )

The country of 5.5 million people has reported nearly 13,000 COVID-19 infections in total so far, including 346 deaths.

With Santa greeting kids from behind a Plexiglas screen and elves wearing masks, Christmas cheer is already in short supply.

At tour company Safarctica, which offers snowmobile tours and ice-swimming, sales director Antti Antikainen, reckons bookings are set to fall 50-80% this year, adding: “I think it’s closer to 80%.”

Tourism-oriented firms, which employ around 8% of people in the region, have already started laying off workers and many have little hope that the festive season can be saved, unless the government eases some of its travel restrictions soon.

“At this very moment my answer would be that Christmas is cancelled,” said Harri Mallinen, who runs the Apukka Resort in Rovaniemi.

(This story corrects to remove reference to quarantines in paragraph 2)

Reporting by Attila Cser in Rovaniemi, additional reporting by Tarmo Virki in Tallinn; Editing by Simon Johnson and Gareth Jones

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