Seasonal traffic flows are a well-known phenomenon in the European airline industry.
At the start of every summer season, airlines all over the continent, both scheduled and charter, gear up to fly millions of tourists from the northern latitudes to sea and sand destinations across the Mediterranean and the southern islands.
To many, the allure of warm climates is undeniable, but some like it cold, too.
The big seasonal summer air movements pattern has a mirror flow going in the opposite direction during the winter months, albeit on a much smaller scale.
Is this due to people longing to experience the ‘traditional’ white Christmas that cinema and literature have embedded in popular imagination? Or is it the result of airlines proactively looking for new opportunities to cash in during the quieter winter months?
Maybe it’s a combination of all the above, but the fact is that in recent years Lapland has emerged as a major air travel destination during the weeks leading up to the Christmas festive season.
For a certain period, roughly between November and January, hundreds of thousands of visitors, mostly families with young children, flock to Finnish Lapland in search of a proper Winter Wonderland.
For the little ones there’s a chance to get an audience with none other than Santa Claus himself. Although there is no shortage of activities and experience appealing to older travelers as well, such as enjoying the Northern Lights or indulging in all sorts of outdoor activities and winter sports, in direct contact with the wild nature of the Nordic forests.
A handful of airports in Northern Finland, located very close to the Arctic Circle, Rovaniemi (RVN), Ivalo (IVL), Kittilä (KTT) and Kuusamo (KAO), have become gateways for this fast-developing experiential tourism market.
According to Finavia, the Finnish state-owned operator that manages 20 of the country’s commercial airports, between them these three northern airports are offering 1.6 million seats on 37 nonstop international routes during the 2023-24 Winter season. This figure represents a capacity increase of 16% compared to the same period the preceding year, as well as 20 new routes.
Rovaniemi, which happens to be Santa Claus’ ‘official’ hometown, the site of a theme-park dedicated to the world of this beloved figure, is the busiest of these airports and the one that accounts for most of the capacity in the region overall (700,000 round-trip seats during the season). It is also the main destination for family tourism, whereas Ivalo, Kittilä and Kuusamo draw a more mixed crowd of winter sports practitioners and nature-lovers.
Rovaniemi has also absorbed most of the newly added capacity (150,000 out of the 240,000 additional seats on offer). In the winter of 2023-24, Rovaniemi airport will boast 24 international nonstop routes to destinations across Europe, 13 of them totally new.
The roster of airlines flying out to and from Lapland during this brief winter peak reads like a who’s who of European aviation.
Not unexpectedly, two low-cost giants, namely Ryanair and easyJet, have taken a prominent role in this market.
The Irish low-cost carrier offers seasonal flights from Rovaniemi to Brussels-Charleroi (CRL), Dublin (DUB), Liverpool, London Stansted (STN) and Milan-Bergamo (BGY).
easyJet in turn is linking Rovaniemi to Amsterdam (AMS), Edinburgh (EDI), London-Luton (LTN), London-Gatwick (LGW), Manchester (MAN), Milan Malpensa (MXP), Naples (NAP) and Paris Charles de Gaulle (CDG). It also flies from Kittilä to London Gatwick (LGW) and Manchester (MAN).
Eurowings Discovery, the leisure-oriented carrier of the Lufthansa Group, also offers an extensive Nordic seasonal flight program from Germany, including not only Finnish Lapland but also destinations in neighboring countries. It flies to Tromsø (TOS), in the fjord country of northern Norway, as well as Lulea (LLA) and Kiruna (KRN), in northern Sweden, all of them regions that offer bespoke winter experiences to visitors. The German carrier flies from Dusseldorf (DUS) to Ivalo, Kittilä, Kuusamo and Rovaniemi and to Kuusamo from Berlin (BER).
Likewise, Switzerland-based Edelweiss Air links Ivalo and Kuusamo to Zurich (ZRH).
Flag carriers are also keen to take on the Lapland market. Turkish Airlines, airBaltic, KLM and Air France serve Rovaniemi from their respective hubs, while another airline of the Air France-KLM, group, Transavia, operates a nonstop service from Paris-Orly (ORY).
Lufthansa has also a presence in Lapland, flying from to Kuusamo and Ivalo from Frankfurt (FRA) and to Kittilä from Munich (MUC). The latter is also served by airBaltic, both from Riga (RIX) and its new base in Tampere in southern-central Finland.
The newcomer this year is Austrian Airlines, which launched its first scheduled flight between Vienna (VIE) and Rovaniemi and Iberia.
The Spanish carrier has launched its first ever nonstop flights between Madrid (MAD) and Rovaniemi, operating twice weekly between December 2 and February 10. Passengers on these flights, children in particular, enjoy some special seasonal treats, such as reindeer-shaped cookies, access to Santa’s letters and crew specially attired for the Christmas season.
Another IAG carrier, Vueling, had already been operating for some time the service between Barcelona (BCN) and Rovaniemi.
Last but not least, the largest network carrier in Lapland is of course Finnair, which connects the country’s northernmost regions to the rest of the world via its hub in Helsinki (HEL).
Päivyt Tallqvist, Finnair’s Senior Vice President for Communications, explained to AeroTime: “We have a strong offering to the Finnish Lapland, flying more flights to Rovaniemi, Kittilä and Ivalo than any other airline. During the peak season, we fly to Rovaniemi with 56 weekly frequencies, to Kittilä with 32 weekly frequencies and to Ivalo with 29 weekly frequencies.”
According to Finavia, scheduled flights represent around three quarters of the traffic. The rest is brought in by the numerous charter flights put together by tour operators.
A case in point is UK-based Titan Airways, which has even devoted a whole Airbus A321 to this purpose. This aircraft, registration G-POWU, spends most of the winter shuttling families between the UK and northern Finland. The airplane has even been painted with a special ‘Santa’s Lapland’ livery to ensure that the festive vibe starts upon departure.
The tourism industry in Rovaniemi has become the direct beneficiary of this new-found interest in the Arctic, with the local hospitality capacity expanding by 10% during this season.
This growing interest in Lapland fits within a broader trend that has seen tourist numbers soar in other Nordic destinations, such as Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands.
Kristiina Hietasaari, Senior Director of Visit Finland, the Finnish tourism promotion organization, told AeroTime: “In most parts of Europe, even in the Alps, you are never sure there will be snow. Here, snow is guaranteed. It is not just about Santa Claus, but about memorable experiences. People can get to see and experience something truly different: the beautiful landscapes, the Northern Lights – and in places like Ivalo you can also get to learn first-hand about the indigenous Sami culture.”
This remains a very seasonal market, although the local tourism and aviation authorities are already looking at ways to capitalize on this success and make Lapland a year-round destination.
Petri Vuori, Finavia’s SVP for Sales & Route Development, explained to Aerotime: “At Finavia Lapland Airports, both the number of passengers and direct route connections increase drastically in winter compared to the summer season. For example, last summer Rovaniemi Airport had no direct international routes. This winter, the number is 24. We are increasingly aiming to introduce the immense popularity of Lapland as a travel destination to year-round travel as well. Lapland has much to offer for travelers also in the summer, and this is something we want to showcase.”
This point was echoed by Visit Finland’s Hietasaari: “We are dedicating all our promotion efforts to seasons other than Winter, since they are not yet as popular, but have much to offer to visitors. For example, in the Autumn, besides the beautiful foliage of our vast forests, you can sometimes already enjoy the Northern Lights while it’s still not too cold!”