Santa is a little busy. I will go in and see if he can meet you now,” says the elf. Or, as the naysayers would describe him, a Finn in a standard-issue elf outfit. We have just been led through a long corridor filled with exhibits meant to make the believer go “wow” and “oh look”. Through a keyhole, you can see visuals of elves at work making presents. Through another, there’s the sight of future Rudolphs being cared for. And then there’s a giant gadget, which, the elf tells you, helps Santa slow time down during Christmas. Just so he can ensure every good boy and girl gets the presents they deserve.
It’s all said with a serious tone, meant to make the experience of meeting Santa Claus look and feel real. “If you want to take a picture with Santa, let the elf inside know.” Same tone.
We are in Rovaniemi, a city in the Arctic Circle that bills itself as the hometown of Santa Claus. Here, a fair slice of the economy is dependent on tourism and the successful amalgamation of myth and marketing contributes a chunk of it. Where else can you meet Santa not just at Christmas, but through all of winter and summer too!
So, there we are, on a “warm” March day, the snow coming down in a steady white rain, waiting to be ushered in to meet the big guy himself. We are at Rovaniemi’s primary destination for Santa seekers, the Santa Claus Village, which welcomes over half a million visitors each year. Besides meeting Santa, visitors can also shop for Santa-centric merchandise and design products by Finnish brands such as Marimekko and Iittalla.
In all, depending on the season, there are about 50-70 companies offering a range of services in the village, including visits to husky and reindeer farms. There’s also a post office, which receives over 18.5 million letters each year for Santa, from nearly 200 countries. In a room buzzing with tourists, browsing through the hundreds of postcards on sale, a chalkboard notice informs that the maximum number of letters come from China. That country also stands fifth in the number of incoming tourists. Not surprisingly, there are separate counters for visitors using Alipay, a popular Chinese payment wallet.
The number of Santa fans from India, too, is turning from a drip to a trickle. In December, arrivals from India had seen a year-on-year jump of 80%, according to Visit Rovaniemi, the local tourism authority. I find evidence of this at Rakas, the Arctic cuisine restaurant, at the Arctic TreeHouse hotel. I am stumped when a waiter asks, “Are you okay with root vegetables? Garlic and onions?” Clearly, the vegetarian game is strong.
At another Santa-centric theme park, aptly called Santa Park, children can enrol in a school for elves, bake gingerbread cookies using Mrs Claus’ “secret recipe” and take a “magic” train ride before being off-loaded at the park’s merchandise store. Built underground, in what was once a nuclear bunker, the architecture ties it to the Finnish legend of Korvatunturi or Ear Fell. Said to be Santa’s true home, deep inside the Arctic Circle, the ear-shaped rock formation is believed to help Santa listen to the wishes of every child. Here, too, at Santa Park, visitors can arrange for their tots to meet Santa. Just you, your children and Santa, in the middle of a beautiful forest.
Plus, there are a host of other activities in and around Rovaniemi, whichever season you choose to visit in—husky and reindeer sleigh rides, snowmobile driving, skiing and snow-shoeing in winter. Northern Lights tours and aeroplane rides to see the Aurora Borealis in autumn. Kayaking, fishing, fat-biking, and hiking in spring and summer. There’s even a course you can take to become one of Santa’s helpers.
“There are about 87 programme service companies and about 220 companies in total, including venues to visit, hotels, restaurants and shops that we cooperate with,” says Sanna Kärkkäinen, managing director of the local tourism authority. “The (annual) tourism revenue of Santa Village alone is about €40 million (around ₹312 crore). Rovaniemi’s income from tourism is €410 million and the majority of it is generated through winter and the Christmas season.”
That money, I discovered, not only feeds the local economy but attracts labour from elsewhere in the European Union as well. I met Petra, a PhD student from the Czech Republic, who migrates every year over 2,500km to Rovaniemi for the winter. She guides tourists at the Wolverine Fell Wilderness and Nature Park, where they can take reindeer rides in winter and feed the animals in summer. “Please keep your hands inside the sleigh at all times. Do not shout or make a noise. You will scare the reindeer and may cause it to run off, taking you with it.” The instructions are delivered in a stern voice as two reindeer herders, also Czech, tether an animal to each sleigh. As she takes a group of us out for a ride, I ask her what she makes of this Santa Claus business. She’s happy to find work in Finland, she says. It paid for her doctoral studies and now it pays for her child’s education. “Please do write about it,” she urges. “We need more tourists to come here. More… (money, she gestures by rubbing a thumb against the forefinger).” Already, tourism in Finland makes up 2.6% of the GDP. Every euro spent adds 56 cents in value to other industries, according to funding agency Business Finland.
Truly, Finland, Rovaniemi and Santa have come a long distance from that time in 1950 when a log cabin constructed to host Eleanor Roosevelt put Lapland’s capital on the tourism map. The former US first lady had expressed a desire to visit the Arctic Circle and the closest airport was in Rovaniemi. Today that airport is dubbed Santa’s Official Home Airport, and serves not just as a gateway to Rovaniemi but to all of Finnish Lapland. About 250 charter flights from France, Spain and Italy land each year at the tiny airport. And Turkish Airlines views the growth in traffic to this region with such promise that it has announced a direct connection to Istanbul from the coming Christmas season.
“Come on in. Santa is ready for you,” says the elf, breaking my chain of thought. We shuffle in to see Santa sitting on his throne ready to receive visitors. Hands are shaken, words exchanged. “How many of you Santas are there on any given day?” I ask cheekily, having heard that as many as 50 could be called upon to play the role in peak season. “Oh, there is only one Santa,” comes the quick reply. “But Santa has many helpers,” he adds with a twinkle in his eye, prompting laughter. More questions follow. Pictures are taken and posted on Instagram. We have done our bit, I guess, in keeping alive and propagating the myth of Santa Claus. Petra would be happy.