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Santa Claus’ annual visit to East Asia called off over virus concerns

A Christmas tradition dating back over 30 years is another casualty of this year’s Covid-19 pandemic.

Joulupukki kammarissaan napapiirillä
This year Santa won't be boarding a flight from Helsinki for a tour of East Asia. Image: Antti Mikkola / Yle

In recent decades, a Finnish Santa Claus has made annual visits to East Asia, meeting fans and dispensing gifts in Japan, China and South Korea.

But this year’s events have been cancelled for the first time, with organisers citing the risk of coronavirus infection.

“Normally we have many large events before Christmas in Japan, Korea and China. We have made these for 20 years with partners like Finnair, Finnish Embassies, and many others,” the Santa Claus Foundation’s CEO Jari Ahjoharju told Yle News.

According to Finnair’s Heidi Lemmetyinen, Santa’s visits to Asia usually involve big crowds gathering to have their pictures taken with the man himself. “This kind of close in-person interaction is not a very good idea during the age of social distancing,” she said.

Father Christmas’s annual visits generate significant media interest in the countries he visits, and have come to be seen as a marker of the start of the festive season, tour organisers claim. News of the cancellation appeared across major outlets in the region.

“Before Christmas every year, Finland’s national airline brings Santa Claus to Japan,” wrote Japan’s national broadcaster NHK, “but this year’s trip has been cancelled due to the impact of the novel coronavirus.”

The broadsheet daily Mainichi Shimbun seemed particularly disappointed. In an article headlined “Santa-san in Japan: 30-year seasonal tradition interrupted by coronavirus,” the newspaper lamented that the “red-hatted, white bearded” figure would not be boarding a flight from Helsinki.

Hard on Lapland tourism

The cancellation is a blow to Finland’s winter tourism industry, which relies on overseas visitors.

Last month a survey by the Finnish Lapland Tourist Board found that over 60 percent of accommodation reservations for this year’s Christmas period had been cancelled. Over half of the businesses surveyed said they believed that domestic visitors would not make up for the financial losses caused by the dramatic drop in tourists coming from abroad.

“Covid-19 is certainly going to hit tourism in Lapland a lot. For the period mid-March 2020 to March 2021 we estimate around 700 million euros in tourism revenue loss and 5,000 fewer tourism-related jobs in Lapland,” said Sanna Kärkkäinen, CEO of Visit Rovaniemi.

A proposed testing-based model that would have allowed visitors to enter Finland for non-essential purposes was recently shot down by Parliament’s Constitutional Law Committee, something that Kärkkäinen says has frustrated Lapland’s winter tourism businesses.

“The tourism industry of Lapland has been very disappointed that the risk assessment plan created in cooperation with tourism suppliers and the Lapland Hospital District was not accepted as a tool for safe travel and opening the travel to Finland,” she told Yle News.

“The tourism players of Lapland have been working on the model with health authorities since April, suggesting health and safety measures to the Finnish government. Yet, after 8 months, there is hardly any progress,” Kärkkäinen said.

Restrictions on most travellers

Currently, travellers from all European destinations other than the Vatican are subject to restrictions on entering Finland, according to information from the Finnish Border Guard.

Visitors from Australia, Singapore, South Korea, Japan, Rwanda, Thailand and New Zealand are currently not subject to Covid-related entry restrictions by the Finnish Border Guard, although their own governments may impose rules that limit the ability of tourists to visit Finland.

In the case of Japan, the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs currently places Finland under a “Level Three” restriction, which recommends against all travel. Japanese travellers returning to Japan from Finland are also subject to a 14-day quarantine upon their return.

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