Reviewed on 30 Apr 2006 by Anon
1. What was the most memorable or exciting part of your vacation?
The most memorable feature of the vacation - to the average city-dwelling Brit - was the landscape. Forests and frozen lakes, big skies and 18-hours of daylight - our girls were convinced they were in Narnia (the thaw suggesting Aslan would arrive soon). It was also terrific, and sometimes very funny, trying out the various ways to get around from snow-shoe hiking to reindeer-sledding, husky driving to snowmobiling.
2. What tips would you give other travelers booking this vacation?
Although we had a wonderful time and would heartily recommend the trip, it's worth pointing out that the activities themselves (well organized by the local safari company) do not occupy you for more than half a day each. Had we not been skiers we might have been frustrated. The skiing is hardly extensive or testing but is always fun and it's a great place for kids to learn or improve (and to snowboard or learn freestyle etc). Our vacation was not cheap - and it would certainly have been easy to arrange all as an independent traveler. There's a weekly charter flight operated by Crystal/ Thomson on a Sunday which I believe you can sometimes book flight only, a range of accommodation options and several very good safari companies organizing all sorts of activities locally (at considerable discounts on the rates we paid). Stellar Polaris, the local company concerned, were terrific. Though the husky sledding operation is a clever business neatly designed to take lots of money from lots of tourists fairly swiftly, the experience itself is so memorable and thrilling that it's worth doing. Snowmobiling is hardly responsible travel - noisy rampaging around the woods belching petrol - but it is brilliant fun and takes you to some amazing wilderness.
3. Did you feel that your vacation benefited local people, and minimized impacts on the environment?
The social/environmental benefit is difficult to measure. Certainly Finland near the Arctic circle needs tourism - and almost all businesses in Ruka were smallish scale and staffed by locals for whom employment would otherwise be difficult. There isn't mass tourism or inappropriate development. It's also hard to say whether the economic priorities of the Lapp region are in the best interests of the Sami people. The remaining true reindeer herdsmen living the traditional life have moved to the far north. Given that we ate reindeer most days and it was ubiquitous on every menu, I imagine that was locally sourced. But no doubt most foodstuffs etc are brought in from far away. Equally, energy use is massive - places that cold and that dark for most of the year require continual heating and lighting. Even in April, when there is light in the sky till 11pm, many cross-country ski routes are lit round-the-clock (which makes for a magical experience). We had a great time in an unusual place far off the beaten track. We got out into terrain which covers vast northern tracts of our planet and yet may be the least visited wilderness on earth. Whether that makes it responsible travel is quite another question...
4. Any other comments?
**** for the experience ** for the organization and tour operator bit.
Read the operator's response here:
Here is our response to the comments made this client. First and foremost, we would like to express our delight that the client appears to have thoroughly enjoyed the vacation. It makes the perceived criticism all the more worthy of a comprehensive response. We would like to point out that we spent considerable time discussing this trip with the client and provided comprehensive, and correct information throughout. Hence, we are disappointed that he has chosen to criticize where we feel it is unnecessary to do so.
I have put our reply into his text (traveler's comments in italic) in order to answer each point in an organized and coherent manner. It is unfortunate that this vacation will now get a lower rating on Responsible Travel than it deserves.
“Yes, I’ve had a brief word with the operator. It’s not that I was disappointed with them (apart from them not knowing about a 2-hour scheduled delay to the return flight which the other operators knew about).”
We were not informed by the airline about the delay on the return flight, an issue we have brought up with the airline since. Crystal Vacations has since apologised to us for their failure to do so. We have told the client that we were not informed but unfortunately he does not appear to accept our explanation.
If we had known, we would have informed him. We pride ourselves on our administration and customer service but on very rare occasions these things just go wrong due to the failings of third parties.
We would add that our documentation does advise that the client rings the local number provided while in the destination in order to confirm the return flight time.
“Our tailor-made prices for the activities we booked were much higher than those advertised at the resort (by our activities organizers and others) and, as you know, Scandinavia is fairly costly anyway. There seemed to be a big mark-up to our prices and I was told their commission was high too.”
We do not mark up activity prices. Our profit is generated in the overall vacation cost (flights, transfers, guides and accommodation). The activity prices are based on the costs provided to us by our suppliers almost 12 months before the vacations take place. The only time we make a profit on activities is when exchange rates have moved in our favour.
It is unfortunate that our ground handlers appear to have accused us of taking higher commissions than we do and we will take appropriate remedial action.
It is our experience that when activity providers have to curtail activities or deal directly with clients they will immediately blame the Tour Operator out of convenience rather than have to deal with the problem themselves. In this instance, the client may have actually given us the opportunity to discover whether the prices quoted to us for activities have been inflated.
“Information wasn’t great. We arranged from here one activity – tobogganing and pancakes – for our first day. On arrival we were told that one could never be arranged on a day when no other activity was taken (although in fact it was cancelled because of the weather). Similarly, the Full 10 husky ride amounted to little more than 45 minutes on the husky sled (which felt a very short 10km to me, however wonderful it was). The whole round-trip – hotel to hotel – was around 2.5 hours.”
The duration of each activity is clearly stated in our brochure and includes the text “All activity durations include transfers from the start and end points”. We couldn’t be more transparent and regret the implication that we mislead the client on this issue.
Activity durations are carefully calculated to achieve maximum enjoyment across a wide range of fitness levels and to take into account the environment and weather conditions. The client was clearly told over several telephone conversations about activity durations. It was, indeed, made clear to them that they would have ample opportunities to ski, which was very important to them because the activity durations would allow this. They were also aware of the level of skiing available in Ruka. We always describe the skiing in Ruka as follows… ‘ideal for beginners, but do not expect the elevation of Alpine Ski resorts’.
“Although we had a wonderful time and would heartily recommend the trip, it's worth pointing out that the activities themselves (well organized by the local safari company) do not occupy you for more than half a day each.”
Again, we stress that this is clearly highlighted in all our promotional material. The trips to Ruka are family vacations and young children are easily exhausted by a combination of activity and low Finnish temperatures. The vacations have been designed to provide an introduction to Nordic activities, not to send clients on far-flung wilderness adventures. We believe that we make this point perfectly clear.
“If we hadn’t spent the bulk of our week skiing (which was fun and fine but also expensive) we might have felt at a loose end. I certainly think the operator should think about marketing the activities as additions to a more conventional ski-week. Even if we had been on the multi-activity week, I think it would be worth considering either a/ longer activities (eg our brilliant snow shoe trek amounted to no more than 2km walking – we’d have happily stayed out far longer)”
It strikes us as being somewhat unreasonable to criticize us for not providing ski information when we don’t sell skiing vacations. We are a multi-activity tour operator. If the client had wanted a ski vacation he could simply have booked with one of the industry giants who operate in the area …i.e. Crystal or Inghams.
We do however, dedicate considerable space in our brochure and on our website highlighting the fact that Ruka is a great place to combine skiing with Nordic activities.
“More info and advice upfront about the skiing opportunities (cross-country, downhill, telemark, boarding etc with a good ski school in Ruka).“
Again, we stress that we do not sell ski vacations and that this client did not book a ski vacation. If he had requested additional information regarding skiing in Ruka, we would have been delighted to obtain that information on his behalf.
Cost and Independent Travel
“Our vacation was not cheap - and it would certainly have been easy to arrange all as an independent traveler. There's a weekly charter flight operated by Crystal/ Thomson on a Sunday which I believe you can sometimes book flight only, a range of accommodation options and several very good safari companies organizing all sorts of activities locally (at considerable discounts on the rates we paid).”
Crystal flights are not on general sale to the public except on exceptional occasions i.e. very last minute.
A member of our staff spent approximately 2-3 hours of telephone time with this client outlining details about resort / temperatures / conditions / clothing / distances etc. The client could talk to somebody who has visited the destination on a number of occasions because our policy is to ensure that our staff are familiar with the vacations we sell.
Naturally, people are welcome to make their own arrangements but should not travel independently unless they have the full and correct information. The majority of our clients appreciate the reassurance and knowledge we can provide by virtue of our first hand experience of the destination.
Had the clients travelled independently and perhaps booked with a cheaper activity provider, could they have been sure that the suppliers were fully qualified? We can because we have been there, researched the companies on offer and have copies of the qualification certificates for the companies we work with.
How long would they have spent on the first night and the first day organising and orientating themselves? With us, none whatsoever because our guides meet clients at the airport, make sure they are settled into the accommodation before sitting down and talking through everything on the first night. The next morning the guides are waiting to take the clients to the safari office or the activity start point.
Basically, we take the strain and do the organising and the vast majority of our clients fully appreciate this.
In addition, we expend considerable financial resources on providing full consumer protection in the form of our ATOL Licence. There is no risk of financial loss if you book with a bonded operator. Anything else is a minefield.
"Stellar Polaris, the local company concerned, were terrific. Though the husky sledding operation is a clever business neatly designed to take lots of money from lots of tourists fairly swiftly, the experience itself is so memorable and thrilling that it's worth doing."
For one reason or another, husky safaris in Ruka are expensive compared to other regions in Finland. We have negotiated for several years to get prices down but to no avail.
It is worth pointing out that the safari owners get a maximum of 6 months work out of their dogs during the year. However, the dogs must be fed and cared for all year. The cost of dog sled safaris is reflected in the fact that the safari companies must generate 12 months income in the winter season alone.
“Snowmobiling is hardly responsible travel - noisy rampaging around the woods belching petrol - but it is brilliant fun and takes you to some amazing wilderness.”
Snowmobiles give this impression because the cold accentuates the fume cloud. However, there is a very positive side to this exhilarating winter sport.
It is worth pointing out that snowmobiles are very much a way of life in Lapland and provide local people with a fuel efficient means of transport in winter conditions. The alternative would be 4WD vehicles or snowshoes, huskies or reindeer. In this day and age, there is little doubt as to which mode of transport people would choose if snowmobiles were not available.
In addition, the snowmobile safaris provide income and employment, not just to the snowmobile companies. The use of snowmobiles creates an industry in itself as they have to be built (creating work and income), serviced (providing work and income), repaired (providing work and income).
All tourist trails are carefully managed for environmental purposes and designed to have the minimum possible negative impact on flora and fauna. The economic, social and environmental argument for their use is, in our opinion, undeniable.
Economic, Social and Environmental Benefits
“The social/environmental benefit is difficult to measure. Certainly Finland near the Arctic circle needs tourism - and almost all businesses in Ruka were smallish scale and staffed by locals for whom employment would otherwise be difficult. There isn't mass tourism or inappropriate development.”
We couldn’t agree more. The economic and social benefits of responsibly managed tourism are too often overlooked.
The Sami People
“It's also hard to say whether the economic priorities of the Lapp region are in the best interests of the Sami people. The remaining true reindeer herdsmen living the traditional life have moved to the far north. Given that we ate reindeer most days and it was ubiquitous on every menu, I imagine that was locally sourced. But no doubt most foodstuffs etc are brought in from far away.”
Like other indigenous people the world over, many Sami have adopted the comforts offered by modern day society and taken the commensurate opportunities provided. For example, the majority of reindeer farms in the region are owned and run by Sami who have chosen the easier route of providing reindeer safaris etc. At least by doing so, they are retaining ancient traditions and illustrating those traditions to both tourists and upcoming generations of Sami.
“Equally, energy use is massive - places that cold and that dark for most of the year require continual heating and lighting. Even in April, when there is light in the sky till 11pm, many cross-country ski routes are lit round-the-clock (which makes for a magical experience).“
With regards to energy consumption, the Finns / Lappish people are extraordinarily energy efficient producing a large amount of power via appropriate hydro-electric schemes and harnessing solar power even in winter. Homes and indeed commercial property as such is designed with this as a priority.
“We had a great time in an unusual place far off the beaten track. We got out into terrain which covers vast northern tracts of our planet and yet may be the least visited wilderness on earth. Whether that makes it responsible travel is quite another question.”
As far as we are concerned the Finns / Lappish people are the most environmentally conscious people we have the pleasure to work with. They have a primary duty of care to their natural environment which they balance with the demands of the rest of the world to visit it for leisure and enjoyment. They steadfastly resist the pressure from major tour operators to over develop and they manage to maintain traditional values whilst establishing a regional economy which can grow and provide employment for those who grow up in the area.
If this is not responsible travel in the 21st century then we do not know what is.
Reviewed on 11 Dec 2005 by Liz GregoryWe were a little unlucky with the weather as it has been unseasonably warm just before we went so there was not as much snow as normal, which meant that the itinerary changed slightly. So, while we did do every activity scheduled, there was not enough snow to go to the activities on the snow mobiles as intended. This made the Reindeer farm trip a little disappointing as the reindeer farm itself consisted of a short trip behind a reindeer!
The best part of the vacation was the husky safari, followed by the snow mobiling. The walk on the first day was good - but we would have liked to have done more/gone a bit further. It would have been useful to have approximate timings for the activities - how long they would last. We weren't sure before we went and no activity was longer than half a day. Had we known this, we may have planned other things before we went. I appreciate that many would go skiing in their spare time, but there may also be others like us who don't want to.
In the instructions, it also told us to take a towel. The purpose of this was not clear (and I realize know that I should have asked!). I took two large towels and did not use them at all. It might be good to tell people why the towels are needed (and maybe only take small ones).
I certainly don't feel that we harmed the environment on this trip apart from maybe when we used the snow mobiles (exhaust fumes). Overall, we had a great time and would definitely book to do a similar thing again. Our guide was great - very knowledgeable and friendly. Transfers to and from the airport worked very well.
Read the operator's response here:
The snowy season in Finland started unseasonably late this year, perhaps another sign of global warming which is one of the reasons we are members of Responsible Travel. These vacations have operated for years and never before has there been so little snow in late November and I am sorry if it detracted from the clients’ winter experience. As you will appreciate, there is nothing we can do about the weather other than continue to operate our vacations in an environmentally responsible manner and hope that others follow suit. Overall however, I get the impression that our local partners ensured that our mutual clients had a thoroughly enjoyable vacation despite the weather enforced amendments.
Our brochure gives specific durations for each activity. Perhaps we should also include this in the trip dossiers we send out with the tickets. I will look at implementing this as soon as possible. The comment regarding the towels is a fair point. This is a throw back from a wilderness dog sled safari we run where you are required to take your own towels. Basically, our trip dossier needed updating and this has been done. Our apologies for the error.
Snowmobiling is a way of life in Finland and unavoidably, they do produce fumes. However, we only use qualified guides and approved trails which are designed to have a minimal impact environmentally. Other than changing the whole winter culture in Finland there is little else we can do in this respect I’m afraid.
The Finns are sometimes depicted as being slightly dour but in our experience they are fantastic hosts and very proud of their country. I’m delighted that our clients had a great time despite the unseasonable weather and attribute this largely to the expertise of our Finnish partners.