Santa offers Zoom calls with children for £71 a pop after Covid kills Lapland tourism

Richard Orange
·4 min read
Eira and Finn enjoy a call with Santa - Emma Larsson
Eira and Finn enjoy a call with Santa - Emma Larsson

"What’s the difference between English Christmas and Swedish Christmas?" my son Finn, 6, pipes up when Santa Claus - the real one - lets the children ask questions over the Zoom connection to the Santa Claus Office deep in Finnish Lapland.

"I don’t see so many differences," he responds in a baritone as fruity as a Christmas pudding. "I think sometimes in Sweden I meet you at home, but mostly in England I will visit during the night when people are sleeping and leave gifts there."

With travel to Finland now restricted to just seven countries, none of them - including Rwanda and Vatican City - big markets for its €500m-a-year Santa Claus industry, Saint Nick has been reduced to flogging five-minute calls over Zoom, Whatsapp and Skype for €79 (£71) a pop.

To Santa's right, there's a Christmas tree decorated in the tasteful Scandinavian style and behind him a plush red curtain. But what makes the five-minute call special is the grandfatherly warmth he exudes right from the first, "now I can see you both. That's wonderful."

Eira and Finn in a Zoom meeting with Santa - Emma Larsson
Eira and Finn in a Zoom meeting with Santa - Emma Larsson

According to Sanna Kärkkäinen, Managing Director of Visit Rovaniemi, which promotes Finland's Santa Claus industry, the coronavirus pandemic is expected to slash the number of Christmas tourists this December by 85 per cent.

Finland has arguably been more successful than any other European country at managing the coronavirus pandemic, with just 750 deaths registered per 100,000 people.

According to Statistics Finland, the country's GDP between April and June fell 3.9 percent.

But with tourism muted, "The numbers are really awful, they really look horrible at the moment," Kärkkäinen groans. "It’s hit a lot of Lapland resorts, but Rovaniemi, as the gateway to Christmas tourism, is suffering the most."

The city's Santa Claus Office, from where we take our call, is staying defiantly open, as is the Santa Claus Village resort where it is based. But Santapark, the underground theme park that boasts the "home cavern of Santa", where you can also "whisper your dearest wishes to Santa Claus himself", has closed until next season, putting scores of elves and Santa Clauses out of work.

Santa Claus meets children in Rovaniemi - REUTERS/Attila Cser
Santa Claus meets children in Rovaniemi - REUTERS/Attila Cser

In total, there are 1,400 fewer people working in tourism in and around the city this year, Ms Kärkkäinen reports, and €200m less being spent.

Santa Claus himself, ever the optimist, emphasises the positive side. A meeting that was once the preserve of children from families willing and able to pay for a trip to Lapland, is now within the means of almost everyone, he points out - though some would say €79 still seems a lot for a five-minute Zoom call.   

"I love this because it's possible for everybody, I would say, and that's the fine part of it," he enthuses through his thick white beard. "I've talked to Australia, to India, to England, to Sweden, all over the world. So I'm meeting kids from around the globe.

"And children, they are so clever. They knew this is the way to do it. As you know, these times make us think about things differently. And we must find different ways to be in contact with people."

Visit Rovaniemi has also been marketing a Lapland Christmas hard to domestic Finnish tourists.

A woman in traditional Laplander costume rides with a group of tourists on a reindeer sled in the "Santa Claus Village" near Rovaniemi - JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP via Getty Images
A woman in traditional Laplander costume rides with a group of tourists on a reindeer sled in the "Santa Claus Village" near Rovaniemi - JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP via Getty Images

"The Finnish families are keen on seeing Santa too, and of course, it's their chance [of a] lifetime. We want to tell them, ’now’s your chance’, We’re telling them ’this is going to be the most Finnish Christmas ever’," Ms Kärkkäinen said. 

But Santa Claus notes that those who come to meet him have tended so far to be international families living in Finland. Asked how he handled physical meetings - as a person whose age and obesity clearly puts him in a risk group - he points to the plexiglass screen to his left.

"The idea is that people are on the other side, I'm here, and we are still close to each other," he says. "I'm not worried at all."

All the elves at Santa Claus Village are required to wear face masks at all times, as are visitors to the park, including the few children who meet Santa Claus physically.

As for travel restrictions, Santa points out that although only Ireland and Scotland have so far publicly classed him as an "essential worker", he has struck private arrangements with other countries ahead of his Christmas Eve deliveries.

"They have all actually done that, but it's more secret in other places," he said.

After hearing my children's wishes (Minecraft Lego, L.O.L. dolls, and a catapult), Santa then gets to the meat of the issue.

"What do you think, you two? Are you on the nice list or on the naughty list?"

"Nice!" screams Eira, 8. Santa then leafs through his leather-bound  notebook, mumbling, "Are you on the nice list?.. I think... so you are!"