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Finnish travel sector recovering, but facing staff shortages

Some companies say they have had problems rehiring enough qualified personnel to meet demand.

The lake districts of Central Finland and South Savo have shot up in popularity with Finnish holidaymakers this summer. Image: Jarkko Riikonen / Yle

Rapidly growing demand surprised some entrepreneurs in the travel sector this summer, leading to a scramble to hire or rehired employees let go while when they had to close operations because of the spread of the coronavirus.

Tiia Valkama, the CEO of the Holiday Centre Revontuli in Hankasalmi, sounds tired, but happy when she answers the phone.

She is incredibly pleased to relate that accommodations at the resort in the Central Finland region have filled up super-fast and the centre's glass igloos and pampering packages are again a hit with under-30 age-group couples.

She's also seen a record number of families with children. Her guests have golfed, paddled, ridden fat bikes and bath in the sauna to their hearts' content. According to Valkama, it has been a pleasure to see.

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Tiia Valkama, CEO of Holiday Centre Revontuli says she's grateful for every tourist arriving at the resort and for the busy summer. Her business was closed mid-March to the end of May. Image: Isto Janhunen / Yle

But, there's a “but”. Summer season workers and part-time staff have been unusually difficult to find.

The resort has had positions for two chefs and a server open throughout the summer season, as well as jobs available for a caddie master and cleaner, but there have been no takers.

“It seems that many people now want to enjoy the summer on their severance pay since they have the opportunity and don't want to take a job. For some reason, it has been exceptionally difficult to get employees, which has been a surprise in this situation,” Valkama says.

A shortage of chefs has nationwide problem for some time. Last year, it was reported that in general there is a shortage of students in the pursuing careers in the restaurant and catering industry.

For Valkama and the resort's permanent staff, the shortage of seasonal employees has meant extra work.

"Normally, as an entrepreneur, I participate in everything, but this summer has been really wild. I go to work in the morning and get home at night. I'm taking care of this week's caddie master shifts. It's annoying that we can't offer the level of service we'd like to,” she continues.

Dealing with uncertainty

Valkama is not completely alone in her worker shortage. This summer has been a boom time for domestic tourism, but it has meant that many entrepreneurs have been very hard pressed to keep up.

The rapidly growing demand surprised companies in the sector particularly in Central Finland and South Savo, who had to lay off and dismiss staff in March when tourism came to an abrupt halt.

According to Maisa Häkkinen, Tourism Director for the City of Mikkeli, the summer season normally gets fully under way only after Midsummer. This year, people were on the move as early as June, as soon as coronavirus health restrictions were lifted.

“Companies had to make recruitment decisions in a situation where the summer was completely in a fog. Many have said that they were unable to foresee such high demand and that they've had too few staff. We've heard from entrepreneurs that they've had to stretch themselves to the limit, but the feeling is 'tired but happy',”says Häkkinen.

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Tourism sector operators in South Savo have also suffered from staff shortages. Olavinlinna Castle is one of Savonlinna's most important tourist destinations. Image: Jarkko Riikonen / Yle

The personnel shortage also caused worries for Riitta Halttunen, who runs the Taulun Kartano manor in Toivakka, Central Finland. The rapid upswing in the number of guests and diners was a positive surprise, but also called for quick arrangements. A large number of the summer's private events that had booked in advance were not cancelled, but rather postponed to a later date.

“The biggest challenge was that we ourselves could not anticipate demand and get in enough staff in time,” Halttunen says.

However, according to Halttunen, the shortage of employees was successfully remedied and additional hands have been found to help out.

Regional differences

According to Timo Lappi, who heads the Finnish Hospitality Association MaRa, the shortage of employees in the tourism industry is a regional phenomenon mainly affecting Central Finland and South Savo. These two regions have enjoyed an unusual level of popularity this year.

“Looking at the whole of the country, demand is clearly below what it was last year,” points out Lappi.

Lappi adds that the areas that have suffered the most are those where most of of the sector's revenue comes from international tourism. In some parts of the country, not even short-term summer jobs have not been able to the extent as in past years.

According to Mikkeli's Häkkinen, the overall fall registered in stays by domestic tourists in South Savo has been significantly smaller than the national average, or the average in the lake district in general.

“For international tourists, we've seen a slightly sharper drop than in other regions,” she says.

Local treasures

Last week, the Visit Jyväskylä tourism promotion organisation also reported that its been a busy summer for the travel sector in Central Finland.

"We managed to increase the number of domestic tourists in the Jyväskylä region as early as in January-February, but then the coronavirus came as a hard blow. If you are looking for something good about the situation, then perhaps more Finns have now discovered the treasures to be found through domestic tourism and in nearby areas,” notes Susanne Rasmus, Tourism and Marketing Manager at Visit Jyväskylä.

This summer, the top destinations for summer tourism in Central Finland have included five national parks and other nature sites, as well as examples of Alvar Aalto's architecture. More special accommodation options, cottage holidays and caravan areas have also attracted tourists.

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The waters of Lake Saimaa and Lake Päijänne have been a major tourist draw this summer. Image: Jarkko Riikonen / Yle

In addition to lodgings, Finnish holidaymakers have also made use of other services in Central Finland, such as guided tours and spa days.

In South Savo, cottage holidays, nature activities, cruises and amusement parks have been in especially high demand.

Quieter times ahead

Häkkinen predicts that the situation will be worse for August and September, as international tourists will be almost completely absent and the start of schools will have a significant impact on domestic tourism.

“Of course, we are working to ensure that the domestic tourist season continues as long as possible into the autumn, but we do not believe that this will be able to compensate for the lack of international visitors,” Häkkinen points out.

The Revontuli Holiday Centre in Hankasalmi also expects to see a decline in business soon.