Responsible tourism in Finland

You can't really fault Finland. The culture is so steeped in connecting with nature it makes so many of the rest us feel as if our efforts in that direction are mere child’s play. Foraging and fishing, wolves and wilderness, bears and berries, they are just a way of life here. If there is one thing that they might be picked up on, however, it is that they are not proud enough of who they are and what they do in their everyday lives. Because for them it is just normal. Kayaking to islands in summer. Ice fishing in winter. Cross country skiing at night to catch the Northern Lights. Being respectful of wild animals. The Sauna. Skinny dipping. It’s all normal. For some tourists, however, it has become a place to feed their current trend for all things wild. Wild food, wild swimming, wild camping, wild yoga. Finland isn’t a fad though. Yes, they may have Santa, but Finland is not just for Christmas. It’s for life.

People & culture

Indigenous Sámi

The indigenous Sámi people live in Finland, as well as Norway, Russia and Sweden. Together these homelands are called Sápmi. The act establishing the Finnish Sámi Parliament or Saamelaiskäräjät was passed in 1973 and was a significant start to recognising the important cultural heritage of this region’s indigenous people. One example of this has been the protection of the Sámi languages, of which there are three in Finland: North Sámi, Skolt Sámi and Inari Sámi.

The Sámi people are also keeping their culture alive and well by sharing it with tourists to Finland and as this is now a key player in generating income for their communities, so do seek them out. Although tourism in Sámi areas was originally introduced by Finns, there has been a positive movement for Sámi and Finns to work together in creating sustainable, small scale and culturally aware products over the last few years and the success of this cooperation is something that tourism providers are very proud of. For example, the Siida Visitor Centre consists of a Sámi museum, and a National Park's visitor center, managed in cooperation.

Reindeer related activities are particularly prevalent in Sámi tourism as reindeer herding is a traditional activity for the Sámi and in fact are much more uniquely Finnish than husky led trips. Indeed, reindeer herding has been an area of conflict at times, with forests being cleared by the state for logging or roads while Sámi people claim their traditional right to use them.
What you can do:
Connecting with nature is close to the Sámi’s heart and so guiding has become an important source of tourism income for Sámi people. However, if you can find ways as a tourist to experience the various Sámi art forms, you will really be touching the heart of their culture. For example, look out for the Duodji label on handicrafts which represent their traditional nomadic lifestyle. Or tune in their music, yoiking being the traditional Sámi form of song, which might be accompanied by the fádnonjurgganas, a 3-5 finger flute, or the rune drum which goes back to ancient shamanic practices.
If you can find ways as a tourist to experience the various Sámi art forms, you really will be touching the heart of their culture.

Husky dogs

Finland is the place to go for husky love. And they do love their huskies. Although funnily enough, this only really took off here in the 1960’s when some clever person saw a gap in the market and now there are thought to be up to 4,000 Siberian huskies in the country. Visitors to Finland can struggle with the idea of dogs being used for work, especially cuddly dog obsessed tourists like the British. But very quickly you realise that, although these are working dogs, they are also very happy dogs.
Visitors can struggle with the idea of dogs being used for work. But very quickly you realise that, although these are working dogs, they are also very happy dogs.
It is immediately clear that Finnish owners adore their dogs. It goes way beyond a money making venture for these guys. For example, a large kennel went bankrupt recently and all the others immediately stepped in to rescue the dogs, even if they didn't really need extra dogs. When you take a husky ride, you can feel that the dogs are doing what they love. Running. And also, you will rarely see a husky guide shout at his or her dogs. It is as if the human is being led by the dog, not the other way around. Although there is little regulation concerning animal welfare, guidelines have been developed by local experts and most husky farms will do their best to comply with these and ensure the dogs are frequently visited by vets.

However, as husky sledding grows in popularity, farmers are under pressure to increase the number of dogs that they have, which reduces the space for each dog, and can make things difficult during the summer months when the dogs are not working. Tour groups are getting larger, and this also impacts on Finland's forests. Here, the silence and wilderness are the big appeal; increases in the number of sledding groups, and bigger group sizes, can threaten the very thing that makes Finnish Lapland so special.

What you can do
Always ask about animal welfare policies, either from your tour operator or from the husky farm itself. Can you see where the dogs are kept? Do they look healthy?

Ensure you travel in a small group, to minimise disturbance on the environment and also to benefit smaller scale farms. If you are visiting in summer, take a walk with a husky; you are tied to the dog who can pull you along some of the uphill stretches! This is a great way for huskies to get out an exercise when there is no snow on the ground and they can't pull sleds.
Suvi Tauriainen, husky guide and wildlife expert with our supplier, Routa Travel:
"Guests need to understand that we love our dogs very much. They are not chained up or in kennels to be cruel. If we didn’t do this, they would run away, as they love to do just that. Run. And if they did run, they would kill local wildlife, something that we do not want either. Our aim is also to protect wild animals, and keep them wild."

Wildlife & environment

Hunt or hide?

Finnish people believe they are linked to wilderness. That there is a natural, symbiotic relationship between man and land. And hunting is, for many, part of that relationship, something that is hard for tourists to get to grips with. Reindeer herding is also a huge part of Finnish life, and bears and wolves kill reindeer. Hunting is a huge generator of local income, as 65 percent of Finland's land and freshwater areas are in private ownership, and the land owner owns the hunting rights on their property. Often the landowners lease these hunting rights to hunting clubs and there are over 4,000 of these in Finland alone. Although it should be noted that the majority of hunting in Finland is not for bear, but for birds, moose and deer, hunting does still take place for fur, with badger, beaver, fox, mink, muskrat, pine marten, and racoon dog all still sought for their pelts. Hunters also act as volunteers in Finland, monitoring species on behalf of conservation bodies and providing a valuable service in this regard.

Bear hunting is still allowed in Finland, although it is strictly regulated. Historically, the bear was a sacred animal for Pagan Finns, and yet it was still hunted. They believed that it has the ability to reincarnate, and celebrations would take place after a hunt (and feast) to ensure that the animal would be able to find life again in the forest. The hunters buried the bones in the forest, and pinned the skull to a pine tree just to make sure. And so, sadly, for trophy hunters, the head of a bear still represents something magical and historical.

Finns are not fans of wolves, however, as there is a deep fear of them, and also they prey on hunting dogs, thus sabotaging an important and traditional way of life for many - as for the Finns, dogs are considered to be family members. So although local people are starting to understand why visitors might want to watch bears, wolves are a different matter. So hunting is complicated here and, as responsible tourists who have no idea about the culture of hunting, we won’t achieve anything by going in with our metaphorical guns ablazing on the subject. Although it is unlikely that you have found yourself on this site if trophy hunting is your thing either, it is worth recognising that there are responsible ways of doing it, such as not using meat to attract animals which you are then going to shoot, or hunting females and her cubs. Both of which are illegal, by the way.
Hunting is complicated, and as responsible tourists who have no idea about the culture of hunting, we won’t achieve anything by going in with our metaphorical guns ablazing.
What you can do
If you are on a wildlife-watching excursion, chat with your guide about the pros and cons of hunting in these areas to gain a greater understanding of the arguments on all sides. There is a movement afoot to try and persuade landowners to give up swathes of land that are guaranteed to be hunting free. And the more we support their wildlife watching vacations and enjoy the hides for watching rather than preying, the stronger the argument for creating such gun free zones in the future.

Read this Financial Times article, and for a grim reality check on bear hunting in Scandinavia YouTube

Responsible tourism tips

Choose a vacation company that uses local guides, whether it is for hiking, wildlife watching, kayaking or cross country skiing. They will not only know the land like the back of their hands, but they will have stories to tell, myths to share and secrets paths to reveal. Guides can struggle to make ends meet all year round, when the Northern Lights and Santa season has died down, so by making the most of their wisdom in all seasons you are supporting the people who have conserved the land for us to enjoy to date. There is plenty of local produce on offer, and although they might not always be top of the menu, do seek out traditional, seasonal food such as reindeer and elk, wood grouse and hazel hen, all usually served with locally grown potatoes, veg and the omnipresent berries. Low carbon activities usually win over gas guzzling ones for any responsible tourist; however, snowmobiles are a necessity in the remote north of Finland. Reindeer and huskies need feeding and care throughout the year - even though the sledging season lasts just a few months, meaning they are not always economically viable for many smaller, local vacation companies. Snowmobiles, on the other hand, are much easier to maintain, and can allow people to remain in rural areas, rather than migrating to the city. Plus, the chances are you've flown to Finland, and drive around at home - so don't judge others for their own, necessary, carbon footprints. Finland is a country for slow travel, so don the cross country skis for heading off piste, or ice skates for crossing the frozen waters, and experience nature in a clean way. If you are tempted to buy Finnish fur as a souvenir, beware that it might be from one of Finland’s fur farms, which do not have good reputations for ethical animal welfare practices generally. At present, wildlife watching guides are all generally very switched on to good practice, however it is worth keeping an eye on the Code of Conduct for responsible wildlife watching. Created by Wild Taiga in partnership with a network of wildlife experts, such initiatives are always welcomed. Especially for wildlife watching on private land where less responsible practices, such as leaving out meat for animals so that they will sniff it out just to give us a sighting, will be frowned upon. Spring and early summer is a wonderful time for wildlife watching and you are also helping winter tourism providers survive throughout the year.
Senior Advisor Veikko Virkkunen, Metsähallitus Natural Heritage Services:
“Finnish National Parks represent wild nature in the sense that no one lives there. When tourism businesses want to operate in a National Park, they agree with the Park to adhere to our Principles of Sustainable Nature Tourism. Everybody following these guidelines helps us to provide the visitors safe and memorable nature experiences”.
Written by Catherine Mack
Photo credits: [Page banner: Tero Laakso] [Indigenous Sámi: RIKU PIHLANTO / Visit Finland] [Husky dogs: Mitchell Henderson] [Hunt or hide?: Mats Lindberg]