Responsible tourism in Lapland
Equally, the mining spotlight has never been shone brighter than it is currently shining on the billion-dollar quantities of precious minerals that the far north sits on, but it’s likely we’re only privy to the side of the industry with good intentions. It’s possible to go to Lapland and learn about all of these things – even experience all of these things – in a positive and mindful way, so rely on the opinions of those travel providers that care about preserving Lapland’s wilderness and it’s intriguing, traditional core.
Our Lapland Vacations
People & Culture
Sámi – image vs realityThe preservation of Sámi culture is a source of increasing debate – though not just with regard to 'mainstream' Finnish, Norwegian and Swedish society but also within the Sámi community. Outwardly, laudable efforts seem to have been made in recent years, with initiatives such as the Minority Languages Act, which sought to promote Sámi language teaching and wider use in Lapland. However, pragmatic folk have pointed out that the language has already been greatly weakened by the inability of many young Sámi to speak it well, while a lack of enough officials proficient in Sámi undermined its widespread administrative use in practice (as opposed to principle). A newly-created mobile phone app –Memrise – is a platform that allows users to input words or phrases and create their own language course. The Ume Sami community began to use the app without the company’s knowledge and are now experimenting with using video clips to capture correct pronunciation and inject character into the online documentation of the language.
A thornier issue is how the Sámi community is perceived as opposed to how it actually is. For example, reindeer herding is widely perceived as a key marker of Sámi existence – yet only 10 percent of Sámi belong to active reindeer herding collectives (known as sameby), and only 5 percent are believed to actually herd reindeer. Further widening the gulf between practical reality and perception is the fact that the Swedish government officially designates many Sámi rights based on the idea that their primary activity is reindeer herding, limiting rights for the many Sámi for whom this is not a key part of their lifestyle.
While this sounds fair and just, the Parliament itself is arguably unrepresentative. More than half the parliamentary seats are held by reindeer herders, even though they represent between just 5-10% of the community. Land-related disputes predominate debates, ignoring the concerns of nearly 90% of Sámi who lack the land rights linked specifically to herding.
What can you do?
Try to ensure that any Sámi tourist activities you take part in benefit as wide a range of the community as possible. 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. Look out for the Duodji label on handicrafts which represent their traditional nomadic lifestyle and tune into 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. Speak to the Sámi – your guides, the herders you visit – to learn more about the issues they are facing.
There’s more to Lapland than LightsIndigenous 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 the 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 an experience where you 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.
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.
Wildlife & environment
Glide don’t guzzleThere are two very two clear sides as to whether snowmobiling in Lapland is an issue – one sees snowmobiles as gas guzzling, wilderness destroyers that can only have a negative environmental impact, the other states that without the snowmobile, there would be no tourism across the regions; weighing it up, we’re inclined to side with the latter.
Huskies need feeding and attention for 12 months of the year. Reindeer need feeding and attention for 12 months of the year. Snowmobiles need feeding and attention for five months of the year. There is a little money in huskies and reindeer, but more is generated from snowmobile safaris. What’s more, the snowmobile provides huge economic and social benefits throughout Finnish Lapland - not just work for guides, but for a whole industry required to support the snowmobile fraternity: mechanics, suppliers, distributors, parts manufacturers and more.
Of course, for any responsible tourist, a lion’s share of low carbon activities is preferable to lots of those that do guzzle gas. But, snowmobiles are sometimes a necessity – certainly for locals – and, having flown out to Lapland in the first place, it seems churlish and a bit hypocritical to start banging on about the environmental damage caused by a local-economy-boosting snowmobile safari.
Snowmobile responsibly – go on one snowmobile safari to experience the thrill during the week instead of one every day: excess use will damage the precious Lappish wilderness and isn’t recommended. Lapland is a country for slow travel, so don cross country skis or snowshoes for heading off piste, or ice skates for crossing the frozen waters, and experience nature in a clean way.
You can also read more about the impacts of snowmobiles in this article.
Irresponsible Santa seekersNormally, we try to be diplomatic about the responsible tourism issues that we bring to the fore, but on this one, it’s a struggle. Effectively, fly-in, fly-out 24-hour trips to come and seek out Santa in his grotto don’t do any good for anybody. From the family’s perspective, you have to be up at 3am and then wait around at the airport before a three-and-a-half hour flight after which, with probably at least one member of the family getting pretty tired, you’re whisked around a quick dog-sled safari, a quick reindeer safari, taking in almost none of the cultural significance or beauty of the landscape before you’re shunted through a queue to grab your five minutes with Father Christmas. Then you’ve got to get all the way home again. It’s exhausting just writing about it.
A bigger problem still is that the operators who run these Christmas conveyor belt trips squeeze the suppliers in Lapland down to the very last cent, so they are working for very little, but serving crowds and crowds of people. Economically, the trips make little or no contribution to Lapland; environmentally, they promote a significant carbon footprint; and socially there’s no contribution either because it’s just a “pile them high” mentally with no consideration for spreading the word on how important it is to keep the old ways of living across Lapland alive.
What can you do?
Don’t bother. It’s costly, exhausting and absolutely not inline with benefitting Lapland’s economy or environment. There are other, far more magical, and, importantly, relaxing trips to Lapland that span four or five days and allow you to spend some quality time with Father Christmas, his wife and all of his little helpers.
Mining – turning minerals into money
Sadly, any destination sat on a lucrative bounty isn’t going to be safe from the perils of money-motivated damage for long and, ‘thanks’ to Lapland’s vast underground swathes of uranium, iron ore, nickel, phosphorous and other valuable rare earth minerals, huge stretches of Europe’s last wildernesses are at risk of damage and pollution as the international mining industry gears up to get stuck into the region’s billion-dollar mega mines.
Recent geological studies, undertaken by Finland's Natural Resources Institute and Lapland University, show that the environmental effects of mines will be reflected for decades in Finland's flora and fauna and can cause changes in the reproductive success of different species which may well result in a reduction of biodiversity.
"There are surprisingly few environmental studies on prevention of risks and adverse effects, as well as studies anticipating the effects of climate change. For example, melting of the regions with permafrost could increase acid mine drainage, which might increase the amount of heavy metals being carried into the soil from mines," says Anne Tolvanen, professor at the Natural Resources Institute Finland.
There's a mining boom across the region with hundreds of exploration permits applied for and granted. It's estimated that over an eighth of Finland has now been designated for mining and the Swedish government has also stated its plans to treble the amount of mines in Sweden.
Such a rush is likely to bring permanent damage to Lapland’s unparalleled wilderness network of rivers, lakes and mountains, which are not only home to some of Europe’s largest mammals including lynx and bears, but is also home to many communities of indigenous Sámi people. They live by reindeer herding and fishing, which will undoubtedly be affected by such major disruption (not to mention the pollution that will inevitably be thrown up as a by-product), as will the whole point of Lapland’s tourist attraction – its pristine and peaceful nature.
What can you do?
Towns like Kiruna pride themselves on their mines because the industry provides local employment and keeps the money coming in. If you’re interested in exploring the mining culture across Lapland then do so in places that demonstrate a responsible commitment to the environment and the local economy, as opposed to those that are clearly only involved for their own gains.