My trip to Finland this week gave me an insight into how important stakeholder forums are in the destination planning process, but the trip also confirmed how important sustainable destination planning and management is at a destination level. I’d been invited by Mikko Wennberg, a partner at Helsinki based consulting company Owal Group to speak about “How to create an attractive nature tourism destination“. My seminar was designed to give an international perspective to the gathered public and private sector stakeholders while Mikko was playing devils advocate by delivering a series of options to the audience so that they could make strategic choices that would lead to a consensus on the direction the destination should be heading in. The strategic choice that fascinated me the most was whether the stakeholders wanted to focus on a range of target audiences including: a) the Russian market; b) the domestic market (with a heavy emphasis on attracting MICE groups); c) international leisure tourists.
Currently there are about 5 million Russian day visitors per annum crossing over the southern border with Finland. When driving east from Helsinki to Kotka and Hamina roadside signs in Russian dominated the grey and snowy landscape. Many of these signs are advertising places that sell fresh fish (predominately salmon) but much of Russian day visitation is from middle class Russians who want to buy a wide variety of consumer goods that they find hard to source at home. There are in addition about 1 million per year overnight visitors from Russia to Finland and the figure is growing every year. Prior to fully digesting these figures I’d assumed the stakeholders may want to up their game, improve their quality and tap into the MICE market from Helsinki. With the new road up-grades currently taking place it will just be 1 hour’s drive from Helsinki to Kotka by the end of 2014. However, as I heard a little more about the type of services the stakeholders (mostly micro or small enterprise) at the workshop offered and more importantly what type of product they wanted to offer (there was a strong focus on sport fishing due to Kotka being located at the mouth of the Kymi River which is the largest in southern Finland) I began to understand why they favored the Russian market. The new wave of Russians coming over their eastern border are affluent and increasingly well travelled and educated. If you can afford to drive from Russia into Finland to buy salmon (and have a visa to do so) you’ve got to be quite well heeled. As all Nordic residents know fresh fish is very expensive. The overnight Russian visitors are often English speaking which breaks down the language barrier and increasingly those enterprises that offer high quality overnight experiences are beginning to attract Russian MICE groups from St. Peterburg and hinterland.
As I was browsing FB last night I read an interesting article by Stockholm based consultancy Razormind on “Swedish Tourism Competitiveness” (a good read and right on the money when it comes to Sweden’s tourism position). The article gave a brief summary of travel goals for the Nordic countries and they mentioned how Russians would continue to shape Finnish tourism policy as overnight hotel capacity grows in the Helsinki region and as the transport corridor is rapidly improved between St Petersburg and Helsinki. Add the possibility of travel unrestricted by visas and the number of Russians visiting could increase at a staggering pace.
Part of my seminar in Kotka focused on the necessity for long term sustainable tourism and destination planning (as does Razormind’s article) and as casinos begin to be constructed on the Finnish side of the border and more and more Russians flow over the border hungry to visit entertainment complexes, shop, consume, sport fish and buy fresh fish I wonder what the social and environmental impact will be for the host population in the next 10 years and beyond? It’s a question worth considering so that sustainability checks and balances can be fully integrated into the process.