Russian tourists have made a return to South Karelia's shopping centres, with purchases by Finland's eastern neighbours up from last year. Statistics by the shopping tax refund company Global Blue show a five percent increase in sales in Lappeenranta, but numerous other stores have clocked upticks of around ten times that.
The difference in percentages is due to an increase in Russians making their purchases as invoice transactions or via the electronic e-Taxfree service, which grant users higher returns than in traditional tax free shops.
"In September the number of purchases made by Russian customers in the Lappeenranta Prisma supermarket grew by 40 percent, and by more than 60 percent in Imatra," says Risto Punkkinen from the South Karelia Co-operative.
Cars with Russian license plates have been multiplying on the street scene in Lappenranta compared with last spring, locals say.
"We have been shopping more in Finland recently, with the rouble getting stronger," says shopper Tatjana Oganina from St. Petersburg.
An unofficial bus index shows the same trend – the parking lots of supermarkets are lined with a dozen or so Russian tourist buses on busy days, where a year ago there were only a small handful of them on similar days. The buses now in use are also larger.
Border shops considering expansion
The Laplandia Market, a small store near the Nuijamaa border crossing station, may see its 2,000-square-meter market space expanded, according to owner company Atma Trade.
"We definitely need more room if business is on the rise," says CEO Mohamad Darwich.
Several other border-adjacent shops have similar plans.
Atma Trade showed a 20-percent increase in sales in September. This year's estimates have had to be readjusted for some 1 million euros more than expected due to the rise in tourism, the first signs of which were seen in July.
"After three nightmarish years we can see light at the end of the tunnel for the first time," Darwich says.
Tentative improvement due to inflation
The most recent heyday in Russian shopping tourism was in May, 2013, when one euro was worth 40 roubles. Russian buying dwindled that same year, however, and at its lowest the rate was 1 euro to 100 roubles.
The current rate this October is 1 euro for 68 roubles.
"Prices in Russia have risen due to inflation, and it makes sense to travel to Finland to shop again, even though the rouble is still doing badly," Darwich says.
He estimates that this year's Christmas sales will be a quarter higher than one year previously. If the rouble stays where it is, Russian shopping tourism may reach 2010 levels – but it would still be a far cry from the zenith of 2013.