Snowmobiles in Finnish Lapland: A responsible option?

Snowmobile at night, Lapland. Photo by Heather Sunderland
Snowmobile at night, Lapland. Photo by Heather Sunderland
“So what's your stance on the environmental impact of tourists driving snowmobiles Timmo?”

The question was asked by a British journalist at midnight whilst sitting in a traditional Lappish kota, or teepee, on top of Olos Fell in North West Finnish Lapland. I've always felt quite privileged to have been there to hear the answer because it highlighted just how important tourism has become in remote corners of the globe.

The question itself was probably slightly leading as Timmo was our 55-year-old guide on a two-hour night time snowmobile safari. His response was impassioned to say the least and provides a lesson for us all I think. I don't recall his exact words but I'll do my best to paraphrase.

“Without the snowmobile we wouldn't have a tourism industry. Huskies need feeding and attention for 12 months of the year. Reindeer need feeding and attention for 12 months of the year. Snowmobiles need feeding and attention for five months of the year. There is no money in huskies and reindeer, the only money is from snowmobiles.”

Warming to his subject, Timmo passionately explained that the snowmobile provides huge economic and social benefits throughout Finnish Lapland. There's not just work for the guides but a whole industry required to support the snowmobile fraternity. Mechanics, suppliers, distributors, parts manufacturers and more.

I couldn't help but be impressed by his utter conviction and of course, totally convincing argument which was rounded off in fine style with: "If people think that snowmobiles are not environmentally friendly then what are they doing flying to Finland?”

You could tell that Timmo had had this conversation many times. Not just with visiting journalists but with his fellow guides and probably just about everybody he knows. He couldn't quite believe that people from the UK could complain about the fumes from snowmobiles when “half of them drive those ridiculous four wheel cars in the middle of cities like London.” It hardly mattered that none of us present drive such vehicles, we were positively cringing at the sheer truth of his statement.

Real responsible tourism - beyond the environment
I've had time to reflect on everything he said and when Responsible Travel asked me to write about these issues in Lapland it was Timmo's words which sprung immediately to mind.

Many people still think of responsible tourism as being solely concerned with environmental issues and, as a consequence, the positive impact on local economies and communities is often overlooked or discounted. Timmo would argue however, that there are parts of the world where the socio-economic benefits of tourism outweigh even environmental issues.

In 1993, UK visitors spent 145,381 bed nights in Finland. By 2007, that figure had risen four fold to 515,554 (Source: Finnish Tourist Board). The value of what has been extremely well-managed tourism growth has become inestimable.

Tourism in Finnish Lapland has become the main source of employment and income replacing traditional industries such as forestry. Development from a period of extractive industry to an industrial society has come about quickly. In 1950 the largest part of Lapland’s inhabitants lived in rural areas and more than half the workforce worked in forestry and agriculture. Approximately a quarter of Lapland’s 100,000 strong workforce was unemployed in 1997.

Today 65 percent of the workforce is in the service industry, 22 percent in processing and 10 percent in primary production. This huge growth in tourism and service provision has been developed in conjunction with a long-term sustainable tourism plan with one of the primary objectives being to maintain nature in its natural state while guaranteeing the traditional way of life. In a similar vein, responsible tourism is more often than not associated with developing nations rather than the more economically advanced Western world. But, should principles such as Fair Trade be applied uniquely to developing countries? Are Western suppliers not entitled to be fairly paid for the services they provide too?

Huskies, Lapland landscape & Reindeer. Landscape photo by Chris
Huskies, Lapland landscape & Reindeer. Landscape photo by Chris

Linger a little longer in Lapland
Again, Finnish Lapland provides the answers. Tourist visits to Finnish Lapland peak in December as charter flights from around Europe deposit thousands of families into the frozen North in search of the big guy in red.

Many, but by no means all, of these visits are for a few hours only. A wintery race ensues from the airport. “There's a reindeer, here's a Christmas bun, that bloke in the distance is Santa, no time for a toilet visit we're behind schedule.” Such visits have become finely tuned exercises in maximising profits for the tour operator while minimising the benefits to the host country. Essentially, operators squeeze the local suppliers down to almost unmanageable margins and the visitor has little, if any chance to spend money while in the country.

Official statistics illustrate this issue better than any words. According to Finland’s Border Interview Survey (Winter 06/07) British leisure visitors spent an average of €165 per trip but those on one-day trips spent a meagre €34.

The message is clear. If you are heading for Lapland then consider who you travel with. The environmental impacts of a one-day stay can barely be justified but the socio-economic benefits to the host are just as much an issue.

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