I could summarize my experience of the year in which the coronavirus pandemic broke as follows: financially, it was one of the most challenging years of my life - but emotionally, it was a great blessing.
Like many other tourism entrepreneurs specialized in travel in Finland, I spent years living in a whirlwind of busy growth. My company was set to break all its previous records in 2020. While my company was growing aggressively, my health, relationship and family life were suffering. Then came the 12th of March and the whole world stopped.
Over the years, I have learned that you should not be quick to perceive any crises you may face as a solely negative event. After my initial shock, I realized that, for once, I had time to think and reflect, and spend time with my children. Just like many other Finns, I decided to dedicate my time to winding down in the middle of pure nature.
While the current state of affairs prevented me from travelling to Tibet to mediate, the place where I was born, Tuusniemi in northeast Savo, provided a suitable setting with untouched nature and undisturbed peace. It was one of the best summers of my life: I went swimming and rowing a boat, and picked mushrooms and berries. Often the only sound I heard was the humming of the wind in the treetops. The news said that the world was in crisis, but I felt no stress of any kind. By contrast, I started to recall memories from the summers of my childhood.
Bravely, with love
In late summer, it started to become evident that a second wave of the pandemic was coming. This meant that travel would be possible at the earliest in summer 2021. Life is marvellous in a way: when one door closes, another one opens. The municipality of Tuusniemi was looking for someone to lead a nature tourism development project, and this seemed like an interesting challenge. “Bravely, with love” was written on the cover of the local newspaper’s summer edition. I love my region of origin more than anything and have never fallen short on courage. So I contacted my company’s team and asked them if they could cope for a year without me. They said that they would, and would actually manage well. So I decided to take on the task!
Returning to where people are genuine
My first task involved investigating the current state of tourism in the region - and the only way to do that is by getting to know local tourism entrepreneurs. By that I mean authentic local heroes, many of them out of reach of multinational travel websites.
These visits were the best part of the project. As a former villager that had left for the big world, I was welcomed back to “where people are genuine”. It is here, more than anywhere else, that people have learned the importance of stories and a slowed-down lifestyle. The Savo residents love a good story - and will make one up on any topic, such as just buying milk from a shop. Of course, they will also always take time to tell them.
You may find yourself spending hours drinking coffee and chatting here - the world can wait while you are doing it. The people here do not take life too seriously. The Savo residents do not like to talk straight, as this is considered both boring as well as rude. Here in the borderlands between the east and the west, people have always had to be diplomatic in order to survive. You never knew who you might run into in the local wilderness. The local Savo dialect is melodic in itself and listening to it is relaxing. It seems that the entire region is in a constant flow state.
“What is there to worry about in this little life of ours?”
Despite the coronavirus outbreak, life continued as normal in the rural area, although the local tourism entrepreneurs noticed a surprising spike in demand during the summer, and did not quite know how to deal with it. It was particularly striking to realize that nobody’s livelihood was solely dependent on tourism. Instead, those offering tourism services were occasionally in other paid employment, or were self-sufficient, engaging in farming, and foraging the fruit of the forest. When I suggested that they might want to enhance their activities by introducing a booking system, some were worried that this would “lead to no longer getting to chat with people on the phone. That’s the best thing about tourism.”
Many have built their tourism business literally with their own two hands. Instead of taking out a bank loan, local entrepreneurs have really put their back into creating their enterprises. For instance, the timber used in the holiday cottages of one local tourism entrepreneur originates from his own forest, and the entrepreneur’s whole family has participated in trimming the wood and erecting the cottages over the years. After going through some personal hardships, a local shop owner found his true calling in a stress-free lifestyle. The shop owner established a small bakery and café in the shop to serve as a meeting place for the village residents. No one standing in the checkout line here is in a rush - instead, customers are free to stay for as long as they like, chatting and sharing stories just like in the old days! One of the local entrepreneurs inherited a farm, and came up with the idea of transforming the main building into a B&B. The entrepreneur turned the barn into a game arcade and set up an 18-hole disc golf course on what used to be a cow pasture. It’s no wonder that the accommodation is sold out year-round! The most astonishing example is an entrepreneur who spent his inheritance in a rather creative way: he built an astronomical observatory on the roof of a cow shed dating back to the 1700s. This is Finland’s first dark-sky preserve which aims to counterbalance the fact that light pollution is increasing by 2% each year across the globe. Here, at the top of a remote hill, visitors get to discover the beauty of darkness. You can see the Milky Way with your bare eyes and use the telescope to explore distant galaxies. We are in the middle of nowhere - and yet in the middle of everything.
What all of these entrepreneurs also had in common was that all of their services had been given top reviews. The reason was also clear - the entrepreneurs gave their customers what is most important: their own time. The services had gained such popularity through the grapevine that there was no need for any extra marketing.
When I was wondering about all of this, it dawned on me that this is, in fact, the very sustainable tourism people have been talking about! The entrepreneurs were not motivated by exponential growth, but, instead, having a good time and ensuring that their guests are satisfied. And if it so happened that no visitors came, the entrepreneurs would be sure to get over it thanks to their willpower and sense of humour. In fact, even during the worst of times, the Savo residents have approached setbacks with their sense of humour: “Not too many worries living here,as long as we’re not too cold or going hungry”.
This made me recall the greatest lesson learned during my business studies: “No company has ever gone under for scaling up too slowly”. These local entrepreneurs are passionate about tourism, put their heart into it, but above all work according to both their own and natural resources.
This observation led to something of an enlightenment. We already have all it takes and more. Neither our planet nor our emotional well being can take excessively rapid growth. The coronavirus pandemic is a lesson to us and provides us with an opportunity to rebuild tourism on a more sustainable basis. This means that, instead of quantity, we must focus on quality.
Change costs nothing!
The best thing is that this change costs nothing and you can even start tomorrow if you like. We should favor local and nature tourism, and create added value to tourists with content and storytelling. It can be as simple as providing knowledgeable customer service that involves genuine presence. We all are sure to know how good it feels to get that kind of service - it is often more important than any sort of luxurious settings.
Services can aim to use transport that is as environmentally friendly as possible (train, buses), and if you have to fly, direct flights and lower-emissions plane types are recommended.
We should provide customers with an opportunity to compensate for their carbon emissions in different ways. Let’s favor subcontractors and hotels that use sustainable practices and boycott those that do the contrary. Let’s improve the efficiency of activities by creating added value with digital solutions and reducing paper consumption.
Protecting biodiversity and old forests is also of utmost importance. We must see more value in old forests than their worth in solid cubic meters and stop thinking that there will never be a shortage of woods in Finland. Forests aged over 200–300 years have become rare in Finland outside nature reserves. Reconstructing the local rapids that have been harnessed for electricity production would be a major win for nature and travel. We are anxiously waiting for whether the famous Palokki rapids between Juojärvi and Suvasvesi will be hopefully liberated from this purpose one day- this would be one of the greatest favors we could do to the future generations.
Little by little, we are taking steps towards an increasingly sustainable direction. Tourism can also bring new jobs to the environmental sector.
Finland needs trailblazers!
So here is an example of how Finland can compete for its place as a future tourism destination: with service that includes genuine presence, empathy, environmental friendliness, and sustainable development.
The travel entrepreneurs of Tuusniemi and Kaavi - I will always be grateful to you for this lesson learned. Remember to stay just as you are: true individuals who are funny and hospitable.
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