Where marketing of Santa triumphs over geography

Lakhs of tourists visit Rovaniemi in Finland this season to call on Father Christmas in his ‘official hometown’

Here in Santa Claus Village, near the Arctic Circle, is the self-anointed ‘Official Santa’, a Finn who refused to give his real name, insisting he was actually Mr. Claus.

Some distance away in a competing venue is Second Santa, whose real name is Kari Eskeli, 65, also a Finn. As soon as Christmas is over, he goes back home to the warmth of the Spanish Canary Islands. “I can’t wait,” he chuckled at the end of a long recent day of receiving supplicants. “Ho ho ho.”

And then there’s Evil Santa, as he calls himself, an outspoken raconteur holding forth in his son’s busy souvenir shop just downstairs from Official Santa’s grotto.

“This place is exploding now, it’s really taking off,” said Wolfgang Kassik, an Austrian business consultant with a long grey, all-natural beard, who is married to a Finn. “Personally, though, I don’t like kids.”

That could be a problem.

At this time of year around 20 planes a day, chartered and scheduled, land here in the capital of Finnish Lapland, disgorging families from scores of countries, and bringing wide-eyed children to a reliably snowy place that is, for youngsters at least, a convincing recreation of the North Pole (which is actually 2500 km north), complete with reindeer-drawn sleighs, staff in elfin dress and an official Finnish government “Santa’s post office”.

Thousands of letters

The dedicated Santa postal code of 96930 attracts half a million letters a year.

While no more real than the Santa impersonators’ beards, Rovaniemi’s claim to be the base of the one and only true Santa is nonetheless a triumph of marketing, so much so that the town has trademarked its rubric, ‘The Official Hometown of Santa Claus.’

Despite the freezing cold — and nights now 22 hours long — 3,30,000 people from 180 countries, according to current figures, come to visit Santa, purchase €50 photos with him and patronise the dozens of Christmas trinket shops.

That nearly equals the combined total of reindeer (2,00,000) and people (1,80,000) in Lapland; tourism growth this year in Rovaniemi (population 50,000) is 25%, said Sanna Karkkainen, the managing director of Visit Rovaniemi, the tourist board.

“We added 1,000 bed places just this Christmas season,” she said.

Many of the tourists are neither Christians nor even from countries that celebrate Christmas. The largest single group of visitors are Chinese, who typically come without their children because there are no school holidays this time of year in China.

That does not stop them from getting in the lines at the Santa grottoes to meet the jolly old Finns who often play the role to the hilt.

“What’s your real name?” many of the adult visitors ask official Santa, and he has a stock answer. “It’s Santa Claus.”

Fifty years ago, travel marketers got the idea to attract tourists to remote Lapland and settled on Rovaniemi for its train station and airport. For many years, though, the Santa Claus attraction jostled for visitors with tours to see the Northern Lights or go on reindeer safaris.

In 2010, Xi Jinping, then the Chinese vice president, came on an official visit to Helsinki and detoured up here, posing for photos with Official Santa Claus.

Lucky spot

Student Tian Zhang was here then, studying for her Master’s degree, and would only rarely see another Chinese. She never imagined what would happen next.

“Xi Jinping became the President and everyone in China says Finland is a lucky land,” she said.

Chinese tourism steadily increased, helped by Finnish official visits that marketed Lapland as Santa’s home turf.

“A lot of Chinese now think the North Pole is here,” Ms. Zhang said. “It just grew and grew.”NY TIMES