Skift Take

As demand has increased, the Arctic has expanded its visitor infrastructure. It just needs to ensure that it has the personnel to preserve the experiential part of it.

The Arctic’s natural features, remoteness and improving visitor infrastructure is making it an increasingly competitive and popular destination. Yes, the ultimate in an undertourism play. This corner of the world is coming back strong from the pandemic, but its sluggish restaffing levels stand in way for now of it hitting its full potential. 

The Arctic, which includes the northernmost regions of Finland, Norway and Sweden, continues to head back to 2019 levels. In Lapland, Finland’s most northernmost region, total visitors between January and August amounted to 767,000 this year, compared to 869,000 for the same period in 2019, according to the Finnish Lapland Tourist Board.

“In Finnish Lapland, in many destinations here, people are speaking about the best year ever for the coming winter season,” said Rauno Posio, project leader of Visit Arctic Europe, a joint project by the tourism boards of Northern Norway, Swedish Lapland and Finnish Lapland to develop the destination.

Some tour operators are seeing their client booking volume for the coming winter season exceed pre-pandemic levels. “We’ve already surpassed 2019,” said Kensington Tours Director of Product Jason Susinski.

Zooming out over a longer time period, the region has had a rebirth in interest. “I’d say over the last 10 years the Arctic has had a rejuvenation,” said Daniel Skjeldam, CEO of Norway-based Hurtigruten Group, which has operated in the region since 1896. 

Before Covid, demand to the region was growing “enormously,” according to Visit Arctic Europe’s Posio. Between 2016 and 2019, Lapland, for example, received over one million visitors per year, according to the Finnish Lapland Tourist Board.

The region’s natural beauty has historically attracted tourists. “Pure nature, air, silence and then natural phenomena like Northern Lights, Midnight Sun and Fjords, snow, ice, Santa Claus these attractions people want to see once in their lifetime,” said Posio. The Northern Lights, in particular, are the most popular draw for visitors, according to Kensington’s Susinski. 

The unique imagery of the destination lends itself well in the age of Instagram. “The second thing is Instagram and social media, that has also been driving the interest to create Instagrammable moments that it’s a little bit sad I have to say,” Hurtigruten Group’s Skjeldam said. 

The fact that the region is remote and far away from masses of people have been assets, according to Kensigton’s Susinski and Visit Arctic Europe’s Posio. During the pandemic, tourists flocked to rural destinations to escape overcrowded cities, a megatrend Skift has highlighted. The Arctic was no exception. In December 2021, Finland’s Lapland region had the highest hotel occupancy rate in the country at 72 percent, according to Statistics Finland.

While an asset, the destination’s isolation has historically been an obstacle, but that’s no longer the case thanks to improved air connectivity. “When we started the Visit Arctic Europe project in 2015, accessibility was the biggest bottleneck, but not anymore,” said Posio. Daily direct flights are now available from Helsinki, Stockholm and Oslo, said Jason.

Hotel development is trying to catch up to demand growth. “There are hotels but generally not the same caliber as there are in the capital cities,” said Kensington Tours’ Susinski. “The luxury travel market is definitely putting demand on the infrastructure and the local populations are reacting.” 

The improvement in the visitor infrastructure has helped tourist stays lengthen. “When I started in the business in the 1990s, the average length to stay was three days,” Visit Arctic Europe’s Posio said. “Now it’s seven to eight days.”

For supporting visitor experiences, however, staffing has not fully recovered. “The biggest challenge here is lack of personnel and professionals,” Posio said. “When the collapse happened, the companies couldn’t keep all the employees so they took jobs in other industries and they never came back.”

In these remote areas, experiential activities remain somewhat constrained by limited guide availability. Tour guides and staff that can help with expected activities like dog sledding remain few because the industry is still recovering, according to Kensington’s Susinski.

The most northern remote areas like Svlabard, a Norwegian archipelago, remain more challenging than ever for tourism operations despite their increased popularity. The extreme terrain, challenging landscape and limited physical infrastructure has made it difficult to get to. 

“In [Svlabard], there’s very limited infrastructure up there and there’s basically one town clients can be based in so the best way to get up there is by cruise,” said Kensington’s Susinski. Competent tour guides are also hard to come by given the smaller population.

The area has turned into somewhat of a graveyard for cruise expeditions. “There was a massive growth in number of ships for the expedition crews industry prior to Covid,” Hurtigruten Group’s Skjeldam said. “A lot of these companies didn’t have a solid financial platform. So a lot of projects died during Covid.”  Very few cruises operate in Sweden and Finland’s Arctic regions, according to Visit Arctic Europe’s Posio.

Skjeldam said there remains a lot of unused cruise capacity in the region. The scarcity of staff and competency continues to hold back the area’s potential despite its growing popularity.  “All the competence that goes into planning voyages, performing voyages and not the lease to handle logistics around bringing guests ashore and back again in these areas, it’s pretty significant,” said Skjeldam.


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Tags: arctic, climate change, cruise, finland, norway, sweden

Photo credit: Destinations like Lapland in Finland (pictured) are becoming increasingly popular as the Arctic ups its tourism game. Tania & Artur / VisualHunt

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