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Helsinki tourists lose interest in traditional sights, seek experiences

Droves of international cruise ship passengers descended on Helsinki in August. Although many may have visited the monument to Finland’s famous composer Jean Sibelius, they don’t necessarily know who he is. More of today’s tourists are abandoning cultural and architectural sights to take in life the city’s varied environments.

Sibelius-monumentti on yksi Helsingin suosituimmista turistikohteista. Image: Petteri Sopanen / Yle

The Helsinki Cathedral, the Sibelius Monument and the Church in the Rock have been the go-to tourist attractions in Helsinki for decades and a particular favourite with the thousands of cruise boat passengers who arrive in the city for a short stay every summer. It is easy to hit all three in just three hours, leaving plenty of time to return to the boat.

Early August is peak season in Helsinki for cruise tourism, when thousands of vessel-bound foreigners get to set foot on land for a day or two. The cruise ships offer their passengers several different short excursions to choose from: including walks, cycling and even more boating.

“Americans are interested in travelling all the way to Porvoo,” says Kim Long, CEO of the Helsinki-based tour operator LSS-Long Special Services.

He says that in the past, cruise boat tourists were interested in visiting Sibelius’ Ainola home, but interest in cultural and architectural venues has been fading for several years. 

“There’s been a generational change in cruise tourism. People used to be familiar with Sibelius, but they aren’t anymore. Some Brits still know him.”

The Sibelius Monument still has an appeal, he says, but only as a sculpture.

The call of the wild

The average age of the cruise boat tourists arriving in Helsinki is decreasing. Some boats may still have a 70-year-old median, but others have passengers closer to 50.

Younger visitors want different things from their visit to the city. Many choose to take a bus into the city and explore things on their own. Smart phones have all the tools they need: from maps to apps that lead them to the places they want to see.

Helsinki Help tourism advisors meet the ships and hand out Day in Helsinki brochures with different options for spending their time in the city. The travel service Visit Helsinki has also published an Urban Nature map and brochure that highlights the city’s top nature spots. The map also has several ‘quiet places’ marked, for tourists that seek some time away from the hustle and bustle.

Green and clean

St Petersburg has successfully branded itself as the city of white nights in the summer, but Helsinki has not been able to do the same.

“When American tourists come from St Petersburg to Helsinki, they ask if Finland also stays bright at night,” says Ritva Laaksovirta, head of the Helsinki Tourist Guide Association.

Helsinki guides are busy in the summer because tourists who have already seen better-known European cities like Rome, London or Paris crave something new when they arrive in Finland. Last year the association led over 15,000 tours.

The city’s natural splendour is always the biggest draw, says Laaksovirta.

“Tourists from the drier southern climates admire the natural greenery. I’ve seen people become ecstatic during a spell of gentle Finnish summer rain.”