By Laura Junka-Aikio. Translated by Richard Foley. Illustration by Niina Huuskonen.
Lapland and things Lappish are all the rage in Finland today, and local people are taking unprecedented pride in their culture. Are tourism in Finnish Lapland and the marketing of the region finally throwing off their colonial era yoke?
European colonialism left deep psychological and cultural scars in the colonies. The overwhelming “success” of the modernist mentality destroyed local people’s belief in and bonds with their cultural heritage and made them easy prey for externally imposed representations and developmental visions.
This has demonstrably been the case in Lapland. Here, colonialism appears as political and cultural domination emanating from the South and can be seen in the exploitation of natural resources and an undermining of the culture and livelihoods of Lapland’s indigenous people, the Saami.
In 2000, author Tapani Niemi published Kaihon Kotimaa (Wistful Homeland), which dealt with the image of Lapland used in tourism. His thesis in the work was that the old colonialist spirit still haunts the region’s tourist industry, appearing in particular as a lack of respect for the special character and cultural heritage of the North.
Lapland could be marketed as a northern region with its own fascinating traditions and thriving culture, yet what visitors are offered is an Arctic venue full of foreign imports – urban bustle, a variety of motorised activities and rootless fast food. One sees the area’s distinctive cultural tradition only in caricature – phony reindeer herders in Saami dress and soot-faced natives administering the “Lappish baptism”.
In his book, Niemi presented a long list of new, concrete proposals for developing the image of Lapland used in the tourist industry. To his mind, tourism should be based on the distinctive features of the region – wilderness, traditional tales, a culture of peace and quiet, and traditional cuisine that uses local ingredients.
Niemi’s criticism was very timely indeed. Ten years later, we can see that most of his suggested improvements have been, or are being, carried out – either exactly as he described them or as part of more general trends.
The change has not escaped Pihla Väänänen, marketing manager of Northern Lapland Travel.
“The question on everyone’s lips today is how to package and sell experiences of silence”, Väänänen notes.
What this comment reflects is not idealism as much as an attempt to create a customer-oriented strategy. There is a clear demand for silence, as well as tourism at a slower pace.
“What foreigners are fascinated by here in Lapland is the silence, the peace and quiet. Many of them live in noisy cities or in towns that have sprawled into one another.”
According to Väänänen, another trend on the rise in addition to silence is a focus on the strength that one can draw from nature and its bounty. Increasing environmental awareness and the global concern over climate change have created room on the market for new, more natural travel products. This theme is all the more welcome, as it ties in with broader attempts to extend the tourist season in Lapland beyond winter.
“We have put a lot of thought into what nature in Finland has to offer and what we can do with the products it gives us”, Väänänen adds.
She notes the current efforts to develop travel products centred around berries, mushrooms and herbs; these would emphasise ecological values, well-being and the local knowledge of the health benefits and commercial potential natural products have. In the future an excursion into the forest to pick berries might well be the highpoint of a trip to Lapland.
Another focus in the future, according to Väänänen, will be highlighting authentic Saami culture. This would mean exploring the potential for tourism of projects such as Sajos, the Saami cultural centre being built in Inari.
Can we conclude then that local values, myths and knowledge are now coming into their own and deposing the previous excesses of mass tourism? Tapani Niemi himself was positively surprised a couple of years ago when he visited the new ski village at Levi in Kittilä:
“I visited every restaurant there and noticed that the pizzas, burgers and other junk food have almost totally disappeared from the menus. In every restaurant, the main dishes featured reindeer.”
On the other hand, the ski village itself is an example of the type of architectural fiasco Niemi has fought against for years. Lapland has a strong tradition of building using wood and logs. Wooden buildings fit the cultural landscape, and a log cabin is always an experience for tourists.
What are stone chalets doing in the middle of a fell?
Of course, a return to tradition is not the only way to meet the challenges posed by colonialism. Seizing the practices of the colonisers can be emancipatory if it is done on one’s own terms and with an awareness of the tensions between one’s own and the dominant culture.
A different local Lappish culture has begun to flourish alongside that of the traditional mythical Lapland. One reflection of this is the guidebook Rollaattori for the city of Rovaniemi, published in 2005.
Rollaattori, published in Finnish and English, presents Rovaniemi as a vibrant young people’s city, one that may live in a marginal geographical location but is fully aware of the global trends in urban culture. The Rovaniemi featured in the guide uses the language and the style of the big cities, but is not afraid to look them in the eye.
The force behind Rollaattori is Ilkka Väyrynen, a graphic design student at the University of Lapland and one creator of the textile design firm Mieland, which has attracted favourable publicity lately with designs that combine northern themes, political statements and urban fashion. Väyrynen, manager of the advertising agency Advertising Kioski, thinks that the strength of products like Rollaattori and the Mieland brand lies in the novel and distinctive, yet youthful and trendy Lapland they embody.
As Väyrynen explains it, “The idea behind Rollaattori was to put together a travel guide that local people would buy. For once there would be something for us.”
If anyone else should happen to buy the city guide – which has taken on almost cult status nationally – so much the better.