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National parks still more popular than before pandemic

"The pandemic and world crises have shown how important national parks and other natural sites are for health and well-being," the forest agency said.

Pallas–Yllästunturi in Western Lapland has been Finland's most popular national park this year. Image: Ismo Pekkarinen / AOP

The number of visits to Finland's national parks has levelled off from its Covid-era peak, but remains well above the 2019 level.

In the first seven months of this year, national parks racked up 2.2 million visits. That was 11 percent higher than during the same period of 2019.

Although the number of visits declined by 12 percent from last year, the long-term upward trend continued, the state forest management agency Metsähallitus announced on Monday. Its Parks & Wildlife division maintains and develops Finland's national parks, while other parts of Metsähallitus oversee logging on state-owned lands, for instance.

The most popular national parks in Finland this year include three in Lapland: Pallas–Yllästunturi, Urho Kekkonen NP and Pyhä-Luosto, as well as Nuuksio near Helsinki and Koli in eastern Finland.

Tourists from Asia and Russia staying away

"The number of visits to national parks shows a long-term growth trend. However, Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine has also increased uncertainty in nature tourism. Significant effects include inflation and the price of fuel, which have limited domestic tourism this summer. Since the pandemic, the increased array of events in Finland and the opening up of foreign tourism have impacted the use of summer vacationers' time," Parks & Wildlife Finland director Henrik Jansson said in a press release.

Foreign tourists have begun returning to Finland, but noticeably absent are visitors from Asia and Russia who previously frequented national parks, especially in Lapland and Eastern Finland.

More than 80 percent of foreign tourists in Finland this year have been from Europe, according to Kristiina Hietasaari, Senior Director of Visit Finland.

"The most important markets are Germany, France, the Netherlands, Britain and Sweden. However, there are still significantly fewer international overnight stays – 36 percent fewer – than in 2019. We'll have to wait at least another year, maybe even two, for tourism to return to normal," she said.

Nature experiences important during uncertain times

"The pandemic and world crises have shown how important national parks and other natural sites are for health and well-being," the agency said on Monday.

In its surveys, visitors rated nature experiences and satisfaction with park services with an average score of 4.4 out of five points.

According to Jansson, most respondents expressed satisfaction with recent maintenance work on camping services, such as trails and rest stops.

"An important issue for the future is the development of traffic arrangements and public transport to popular destinations. Good models are, for example, this summer's collaboration with [State Railways] VR, which provides access to several national parks and nature sites by train," he added.

Local buses also now transport hikers from cities to parks such as Sipoonkorpi (25 km from Helsinki) and Kurjenrahka (40 km from Turku) and as well as Seitseminen and Helvetinjärvi, near Tampere.

Metsähallitus seeks more funding

Metsähallitus said that it has been able to significantly catch up on overdue repairs to park service structures. Their cost was estimated at 39 million euros in 2019, before the government approved special financing.

"Without this separate funding, the situation would have been unsustainable when the number of visits exploded. Natural values would have been endangered, and customer safety and experience would have been severely undermined," said Jansson.

Metsähallitus argued that permanent funding for park maintenance must be ensured in next year's budget at a level that prevents the accumulation of further repair backlogs.

"The return of foreign tourists also requires high-quality camping structures and services. Only in this way can we promote the revival of nature-based tourism," he said.

Budget boosts conservation

The 2023 budget plan unveiled by the government last week included more funding for nature conservation.

"The government decided on important investments to continue the historic investments in nature conservation made in the past three years," Environment Minister Maria Ohisalo (Green) said on Thursday.

"During this government term, an average annual increase of more than 100 million euros has been targeted. Now, in the budget talks, an additional increase of six million euros was made to this amount, because there is an even greater urgency to stop the loss of nature," Ohisalo wrote in a blog post.

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