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Finnish tourism sector booming in spite of wider economic malaise

by Denise Wall

HELSINKI, Dec. 11 (Xinhua) -- Tourism is one of the rare sectors of the Finnish economy that appears to have resisted the trend of ongoing decline in 2013.

According to a fresh report released by the Ministry of Employment and the Economy, the segment has seen a rise in domestic travel, but has also been boosted by increasing numbers of tourists coming to Finland from Asia and Europe.

Tourism currently accounts for some 2.7 percent of GDP.

In 2014 the Finnish economy saw its third straight year of negative or zero growth, according to the Ministry of Finance. The Ministry forecast a moderate rebound of 1.2 percent GDP in 2015, on the back of exports and private investment.

The country's sluggish economic performance has cut across virtually all sectors - except for the tourism sector, which according to the Ministry of Employment and the Economy has been quietly expanding, buoyed in part by a global appetite for foreign travel.

The Ministry reported that there were nearly 600,000 overnight stays by tourists from Asia in 2013, accounting for 10 percent of all such foreign visits. Additionally, a 16 percent increase in night stays by visitors from Japan elevated that country to become the sixth most important country of origin for foreign tourists.

Although the European Union and Russia remained important contributors to tourism growth, visitors from China grew rapidly compared to tourists coming to Finland from Europe - by more than 20 percent in 2013 - the Ministry report revealed.

While domestic travel has remained the mainstay of the Finnish travel market, Ministry officials said that they expected sustained growth to come from foreign visitors, who also spend more than home-grown tourists - in 2013 tourism income from abroad totaled 4.3 billion euros (5.4 billion U.S. dollars).

The news from the tourism front isn't all rosy, however. Neighboring Russia has long been one of Finland's most important sources of foreign visitors. That tourism goldmine has begun to shallow, as sanctions imposed by the West and Russia over the situation in Ukraine have started to bite in Russia.

Falling oil prices and a weakening ruble have also had a knock-on effect on the Russian economy, making Russians think twice about spending on foreign travel.

"One major factor affecting tourism demand is the situation in Russia. In terms of numbers Russian visitors were the largest group coming into Finland in 2013. However tourists from Russia are declining at the same time that their spending is falling," added the ministry's tourism division manager Susanna Jankala.

The Ministry warned operators in travel and tourism of the dangers of focusing on a narrow target group such as the Russians, cautioning that doing so "could lead to financial difficulties".

In spite of the bump in the road the Economy Ministry has posted a positive outlook for the sector, and is anticipating continued annual growth in 2014 and beyond. According to an analysis done for the Ministry by the think tank Oxford Economics, countries such as Russia, Britain and China are expected to lead the growth in foreign visits between 2014 and 2023.

"Finland is best-positioned to offer tranquility as well as products and services related to wellness. Specific tourism areas can offer unique services to meet the needs of international travelers. For example there's a growing demand for customized services for senior tourists," Jankala concluded.

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