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Åland Islands confirms first coronavirus cases, recommends quarantine for visitors from Finland

The Åland Islands confirmed two cases of infection with novel coronavirus on Saturday.

Maarianhaminan satama.
Travel restrictions are expected to deal a blow to the autonomous territory's tourism-based economy. Image: AOP

The autonomous Åland Islands administration has identified its first two cases of novel coronavirus infection as it grapples with the economic fallout from travel restrictions caused by the disease.

Earlier this week the regional government recommended that people travelling into the region from mainland Finland and Sweden should self-quarantine for 14 days to prevent the spread of the disease.

The recommendation applies to passengers arriving in the region by boat or plane and also includes people arriving by the local archipelago ferry service provided by Ålandstrafiken from Kustavi or Galstby.

On Saturday the region recorded two confirmed cases of infection with novel coronavirus.

The crackdown on movement in the region's neighbouring territories is expected to make a dent in tourism.

"People are being urged not to travel in both Finland and Sweden, and that means no visitors," said Visit Åland CEO Lotta Berner Sjölund.

Although the peak of the summer cottage retreat season is not yet at hand, many customers have already cancelled their bookings, Sjolund lamented.

"We have had cancellations and we horrified to see what will happen in summer," she added.

Shipping slows down, airlines still flying

Meanwhile from Thursday traffic at the local harbours have become quiet as passenger traffic has dwindled, with only freight shipping continuing normally.

On Thursday an order to close borders to external traffic saw ferry operator Viking Line suspend services between Helsinki and Stockholm until 13 April.

However the airfield at Mariehamn, the Åland capital, remains open, with Finnair and Air Leap (Arlanda, Sweden to Mariehamn) still operating flights. Finnair is expected to issue a further updated on flights for April in the days ahead.

Otherwise, the island municipality has put in place the same restrictions as in other partf of Finland. Schools are mostly closed and elderly people have been urged to self-quarantine.

No visitors, no money

The Åland Islands welcome visitors for about 1.8 million overnight stays every year. According to statistics, roughly half stay at commercial enterprises, and nearly half of those are Finns.

Tourism is the lifeblood of the local economy and one in five private sector employees works in the field. Visit Åland gathered responses from local travel indurtsy firms suggesting a decline in reservations, with group booking cancelled all the way into August and September.

Although the busy summer cottage rental season is yet to begin,weekend bookings as well as reservations for Easter have held steady, for example for family vacations or fishing trips during April and May.

However the government's recent declaration of a state of emergency has seen cancellations of nearly all cottage reservations for the weeks ahead and for Easter.

Major hotels and restaurants in Mariehamn described the situation regardimg bookings for big events as catastrophic. All meetings, sports and other group trips scheduled for April to May have been cancelled, Visit Åland said.

In addition, school closures have also caused the cancellation of school trips and camps until the end of May.

Many Åland Islanders residing in Sweden have traditionally spent Easter and May Day at cottages in the autonomous region. While their have been few cancellations so far, operators are adopting a wait and see approach and are hoping for better times during the summer.

Firms dependent on tourism for business are said to be especially troubled by the prevailing sense of uncertainty.

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