Indigenous to Norway, Finland, Sweden and Russia, the Sámi people have lived in the vast northern wildernesses for generations. With a culture rooted in the environments, landscapes and wildlife of the Arctic Circle, these are people who can guide tourists not just through a picturesque landscape but a culturally colourful one too. The Sámi people's relationship with the countries that now encompass their traditional lands is complicated. Recognition of traditional land rights is an issue, and while places such as Finland, Norway and Sweden now have Sámi Parliaments, responsible for education, for the preservation of language and to tackle cultural and social discrimination, the Sámi people are still coping with loss of culture and language through generations.
Despite this, in many areas of Scandinavia, the Sámi are becoming more dependent on tourism for income, and with tourist interest in the Northern Lights increasing, the opportunities to become involved in guiding and cultural tourism initiatives have also risen. For us as tourists, connecting with the traditional guardians of the northern landscapes provides another dimension; a chance for a vacation which is all about looking at the landscape to become one where tourists can become part of the cultures which have shaped it for hundreds of years. For the Sámi, responsible tourism offers a chance to maintain, celebrate and share traditions and skills. Although tourism was introduced into Sámi areas by the Finns in Finland, in recent years there has been a positive movement of Finns and Sámi working together to create sustainable, small scale, culturally sensitive tourism products.
Although the Northern Lights are an ancient phenomenon, mass marketing of them as a tourist attraction is still relatively new. And yet, very quickly tourism to the Arctic regions has increased. As touring in search of the lights firmly establishes itself as one of global travel’s ‘must-sees’, the potential for destructive, mass tourism to overtake more responsible, respectful initiatives is very real. Thankfully, in Finland, this increase so far appears to be well managed, with environmental and social considerations taken very carefully. However, ultimately, it is up to us as tourists to vote with our feet and wallets, to choose carefully which types of tourism we want to support and grow. Just because we're visiting 'developed' countries doesn't mean that responsible tourism, fair wages and fair business that supports local communities is any less important. It can be tempting to just think about the environmental impacts of tourism in the Arctic, but for local communities in Lapland, the socio-economic impacts are just as important.
What can you do?
Be watchful. As visitor numbers and the desire to connect with the Sámi increases, so too does the opportunity for exploitation and tourists should be careful to avoid "authentic" experiences more rooted in tourist dollars than traditional culture. Gift shops often offer cheap reproductions disguised as traditional craftsmanship and attractions may feature non-Sámi staff dressed up in traditional clothing. Don't be afraid to ask questions of a tour operator to find out more of the background to cultural experiences, or to ask to include respectful experiences of Sámi culture into a trip. Another tip is to look out for the colourful "Saami Duodji" label on handicrafts, a mark of authenticity for traditionally, Sámi-made crafts.