Finland attracts growing number of tour operators

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NEW YORK -- Finland has sparked the interest of a growing number of tour operators, a survey conducted by the Finnish Tourist Board here found.

"Four or five years ago, the trend was to visit Finland independently," said Nino Messia de Prado, director of the tourist board.

Turku Castle "Over the past year, tour operator packages are coming back because people know they can get the best deal through an operator. It's a renaissance."

The board's King's Road program, a promotion of the country's southern coast, has drawn new interest, de Prado said. "The program has helped Finland's image," he said. King's Road bookings, however, are still "mediocre."

The King's Road follows the route that 14th century Swedish kings traveled on their way to Russia (neighboring Finland was part of Sweden from the 14th century until 1809). Taverns and manor houses built to serve the king's men are found along the road.

The program, launched with five U.S. operators, has since been picked up by another 16. Operators were skeptical of the King's Road idea at first, but it is now catching on in other countries, de Prado said. Italian, French and German operators added the program last year, and Japanese operators plan to adopt it this year, he said.

Several operators offer biking and golf tours along King's Road. "You can golf among the ruins of castles," de Prado said.

In the snowy season, travelers can combine King's Road with Lapland, a northern wilderness that is the legendary home of Santa Claus. Lapland -- billed as one of Europe's few unspoiled forests -- covers one-third of Finland.

U.S. visitors, however, flock to Europe for history and culture rather than for nature, de Prado said. "We had thought that Americans would want to ski in Lapland, where snow is guaranteed," de Prado said. "But we found that they are more interested in the area's native Sami people, who herd reindeer. Now we will focus on the culture of Lapland."

Winter in Finland tends to scare Americans, however, who envision something similar to Siberia. The country's weather is actually similar to that of New England, de Prado said.

"We have to convince Americans that our climate is temperate. We're near the Gulf Stream." Helsinki temperatures average 37 degrees Fahrenheit in November, 31 in December, 26 in January, 25 in February and 32 in March.

Those who do venture to Finland tend to be seasoned travelers above the age of 55, de Prado said. "They have already visited four or five major international destinations before deciding to go to Finland," he added.

The tourist board created a King's Road Web site, www.thekingsroad.com, because this older group has more time to spend on the Internet, he said.

Many visitors to Finland opt to fly to another Scandinavian country, de Prado added. Some also combine St. Petersburg, Russia, with Finland, while others take a two-hour ferry to Tallinn, Estonia.

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