By Fran Weaver, August 2012
The Finnish tourism industry is welcoming a friendly invasion from the east: Today Russians represent, by far, the most numerous foreign tourist group in Finland.
Sergei Gorkov from Moscow, his wife Anastasia and seven-year-old Katarina load their luggage onto the Helsinki–St Petersburg express train at the end of a three-day stay. “We’ve visited Finland many times and always enjoyed it,” says Sergei. “This is the nearest place for us to have an international break, and comfortable fast trains make it easy.”
“Katarina especially enjoyed visiting Linnanmäki Amusement Park, which is like a mini-Disneyland, and the educational science centre Heureka,” says Sergei. “Last time we also visited Turku, Naantali and Moomin World. The only disappointment this time has been the rainy weather, but we have rain in Russia, too.”
The Gorkovs checked out the Sello shopping mall in nearby Espoo and Sergei met Finnish business contacts socially. “I always enjoy meeting people here,” he says. “Everyone speaks English well, and everything works easily with no rush and hassle – a nice change from Moscow!”
The Gorkov family form part of an increasing wave of tourists heading into Finland from the east. “More than 2.5 million Russians visited Finland in 2010, and we estimate their numbers are increasing by 20 percent a year,” says Sergei Shkurov, the Finnish Tourist Board’s marketing coordinator for Russia.
This means more than two-fifths of Finland’s foreign tourists are Russians. “Russians are coming here more often thanks to their increasing economic wellbeing, better transport connections, easier visa procedures and positive experiences shared by people who have already visited Finland,” says Shkurov, and adds that Finland is now the number one country destination for Russians travelling abroad.
He reckons about half of Finland’s Russian visitors come on brief day or weekend trips from nearby St Petersburg, which has almost five million residents. Four express trains a day take just 3.5 hours to reach Helsinki. Travellers can also drive over the border to nearby towns like Imatra and Lappeenranta, which are increasingly gearing up to welcome them by ensuring that Russian-speaking staff are at hand in shops, restaurants and hotels.
Shopping opportunities are a major attraction for the westbound Russians. “Visitors find designer clothes and quality consumer goods in Finland at very reasonable prices,” says Shkurov. “They’re prepared to pay well for Finnish goods and services, because they trust they’ll get value for money here.”
The tourist board’s figures show that although Russians only stay for an average of 1.4 nights, they spend more per day than almost any other tourist nationality, and account for about a third of all the money spent by Finland’s foreign visitors.
Shkurov believes that Finland’s unspoilt natural settings, lively but safe cities and high service standards also represent major attractions. Russians are also increasingly renting holiday cabins in scenic rural regions of Finland, and visiting popular spas and water parks like the massive new Saimaa Gardens resort near Imatra.
“Our strategy now is to encourage longer-stay visitors from other regions of Russia,” explains Shkurov. “In our marketing of Finland we’re using three specially chosen themes: ‘Silence, please!’ reflecting Finland’s peacefulness; ‘Wild and free!’ describing nature and spaciousness; and ‘Cultural beat!’ emphasising that Finland has a rich cultural life with a mixture of eastern and western influences – and also highlighting Helsinki’s current status as 2012 World Design Capital.”
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