Responsible tourism in Lapland

The issue of responsible tourism in Lapland is thankfully neither hugely out of control, nor difficult to understand. As with most nasties that chip away at the better judgment of tourists, in recent years threats to Lapland’s pristine environment and ancient culture are being driven by a triumvirate of powerful ‘m’s: money, marketing and media. The whole Father Christmas thing is genius in terms of getting people over to Lapland and it’s understandable why parents want to give their children the opportunity to meet the man himself, but it’s essential that we think about the greater impact these 24-hour fly-in, fly-out visits have. They’re not beneficial socially, environmentally, or, crucially, economically, and our money is much better spent spending four or five days in Lapland with Santa being a part of a bigger cultural picture.

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.

People & Culture

Sámi – image vs reality

The 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.
And while in theory the region acknowledges Sámi land rights, in practice these are frequently disregarded, with encroachment by mining companies, disputes with farmers over grazing pasture for reindeer – and tourism operations. Anti-Sámi prejudice is also, sadly, prevalent amid some who see the Sámi as 'outsiders' and 'inferior', despite the lauding of Sámi culture as a tourist draw. Ingrid Inga of the Sámi Parliament (established in 1993) argues that the Sámi should have the right to make decisions about their own affairs and not just have the responsibility for the reindeer industry alone. "We want reforms that give us powers over areas that affect us – language, education, land use and so on. We need this so that the parliament becomes a real decision making body and not just the state agency which we are at the moment."

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.
Laura Greenman, from our supplier, Magnetic North, shares her opinion on cultural Lapland vacations: “When we organise trips or experiences with Sámi people, we have to be really careful that what our travelers are seeing is genuine. Sometimes they might see Sámi in traditional costume for example, but we believe they should only see it if the locals were going to be wearing it anyway; we don’t want people on our trips to experience a ‘show’. We want people to spend time with reindeer herders and see what their day is like and see how they live with their families. These experiences aren’t forced and are in fact very personal and we find that people get so much more out of that than being shunted around a set-up situation.”

There’s more to Lapland than Lights

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 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.
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.
Mikael Kangas, from our supplier, Aurora Retreat, shares his opinion on Northern Lights mania: “The Northern Lights are a part of a trip to Lapland, but they are not the whole package. When we started our business, our focus was on all of the wonderful activities you can do in the region, which keeps people occupied too because the Northern Lights are not a guarantee, so keeping people active and out and about during the evening having fun is more of a priority for us and the Northern Lights; if you see them, fantastic – they are a brilliant added bonus to any Lapland vacation.”

Wildlife & environment

Glide don’t guzzle

There 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.
What you can do
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 seekers

Normally, 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.
Ali McLean, from our supplier, Activities Abroad, shares his opinion on fly-in, fly-out Santa trips: “The 24-hour Christmas trips are awful. We do some Father Christmas trips, but to tiny, tiny locations; there’s one that we do in a place called Kuusamo where you go to Santa’s lakeside lodge and you’re there for five hours, making gingerbread with Mrs Claus and getting a private audience with the man himself for no less than 15 minutes; it’s all done very well and is part of a four-night trip, which is the shortest we’ll do on the Santa front.”

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.

Opinions are divided: while many Sámi communities are protesting about the mining boom, other voices are claiming that the region desperately needs investment. Whatever school of thought you fall into, mining across Lapland is a very real thing and it’s happening regardless, although it has to be said that Sweden particularly seem to be managing the issue well with a policy put in place stating that once they have exhausted a mine, they also have a responsibility to return the landscape to its former glory. Equally, small towns like Kiruna would likely not exist without their neighbouring mining industry, which only serves to highlight the very fine balance between aesthetic, environment and local employment that mining straddles.

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.

Responsible tourism tips

Don't use detergents or toothpaste in or near watercourses, even if they claim to be biodegradable. For personal hygiene use biodegradable soap and a container of water at least 50m from a watercourse. To clean cooking utensils, keep a similar distance and use a scourer, sand or snow rather than detergent. Do not contaminate rivers and lakes by using them as handy toilets. If there isn't a toilet, bury any waste in a small hole at least 100m from any water. Carry litter with you out of the wilderness – never bury it. Don't cut wood to make fires – in popular trekking areas it can cause rapid deforestation. Hunting or fishing in any part of Sweden requires a permit for that specific area – get details from the local tourist office. Always ask permission In Sámi areas before taking a picture of someone, as some Sámi are sensitive about photography. The same applies if taking pictures in parts of Norway where whaling takes place, as locals may be concerned that photos will be used against them in the media. Norway is very strong on recycling, including a mandatory deposit scheme for glass bottles and cans. So if you buy these, be sure to take them back to a shop (not necessarily where you bought them!). Supermarkets also give money back for aluminium cans and plastic bottles (though only around 1 kroner, so you won't get rich). Alcohol consumption is not only very expensive in Norway but strictly controlled in terms of where it can be bought. Drunkenness can be heavily frowned upon, and drinking beer in public is even illegal in some places, running the risk of incurring a hefty fine. That said, don't worry about enjoying a drink in a bar (though your wallet might). Use a local guide, whether it is for hiking, wildlife watching, kayaking or cross country skiing. They will not only know the land and seascapes 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. And encouraging them to pass down their skills to the next generation. There is plenty of local produce on offer, and although they might not always be top of the menu, do seek out the 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. To fit in with the Finns, you must go fishing at least once. The National Fishing website is a great starting point and with 187,888 lakes alone, you will need a good resource to find out where to go and how to do it responsibly. You can get info on licences on this site, although angling with a hook and line and ice-fishing are exempt from licences under public rights of access. The visitor centers featured on the National Park website also sell licences and have plenty of local information. There are plenty of low carbon footprint options in Finland, so do your research before you go, especially when it comes to places to stay. Although many businesses don’t bother with eco certifications schemes (there is still a school of thought along the lines of ‘why bother if it’s second nature to be green anyway?'), there are some green labels which list green accommodation, such as Eceat and Nordic Swan. But look beyond the kitemarks, as there are plenty of options out there. The National Park’s Huts are also wonderful assets for hikers.
Written by Polly Humphris
Photo credits: [Page banner: Tero Laakso] [Sámi – image vs reality: Tea Karvinen / Visit Lapland] [There’s more to Lapland than Lights: libbycalnon] [Glide don’t guzzle: JerzyGorecki] [Mining – turning minerals into money: Agnico-Eagle]