Strong Finnish: Execs say bookings on the rise

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HELSINKI, Finland -- Nearly 500 trade representatives from around the world, including the U.S., descended on the Finnish capital late last month for the biannual Purpuri Travel Market workshop, as this Scandinavian country looks to get arrivals from North America, Europe and Asia back on track.

In an interview at the trade show venue the Wanha Satama, or "Old Harbor," meeting center on the waterfront here, Finnish Tourist Board Director for North America Nino Messia de Prado said authorities expect this year to see between 5% and 10% growth in U.S.-originating arrivals, which have dropped steadily since reaching a high of 225,722 overnights in 2000.

"Industry figures that we're in contact with on a daily basis have told us Finland bookings are far ahead of previous years, and many actually are trying to solve the problem of accommodating all the requests," he said.

"In fact, many operators have waiting-list situations on their hands," de Prado added, although he noted tight transatlantic air capacity might act as a cap on more robust growth in the near future.

Indeed, Jukka Narakka, CEO of Finnair -- which provides the only nonstop service from the U.S. to Helsinki -- said the Finnish flag carrier has seen an increase of 15% to 20% in revenue and load factors this year.

"We are quite confident we'll make a profit in 2004," he said. "And we're reaching the point where we have enough long-haul aircraft so we can switch capacity according to demand."

But the U.S., once Finland's fifth-largest source market, dropped to seventh place in 2003, when overnights slumped by 6%, to 192,328, behind Sweden, Germany, Russia, Great Britain, Norway -- and even the Netherlands; overnights from all markets have fallen a collective 1.3% two years running.

But if the hustle and bustle in the halls of Wanha Satama, a renovated 19th century warehouse complex, were any indication, overseas interest in Finland is booming, particularly from the U.S.

"There's a strong American presence at Purpuri ... and we're always looking for new buyers who haven't seen or experienced our destination yet," said de Prado. "It's our goal right now to entice new business from the States."

According to organizers, more than 200 tour operators, travel agents and other buyers from 32 countries met with 200-plus sellers of travel product from 160 Finnish companies during the Purpuri Travel Market.

Although only a dozen or so buyers and others flew in from the U.S., all were enthusiastic about Finland.

Adriana Budnic of Nordique Tours/Norvista, Los Angeles -- a first-time Purpuri attendee -- said Finland has started "to really pick up a lot," particularly among younger travelers.

"We're even getting business extending through the summer of 2005," she said. "Perhaps Finland's perceived as a safer destination, with all the terrorist threats around the world."

Buyer E. Jon de Revere, of World Stage Concerts and Tours in Woodbridge, N.J., said he's noticed interest in Finland from repeat clients who have already been to France, Italy and other heavily visited Continental destinations.

"They want something different, and Finland's great because not only is there a lot of diversity here, but my clients can travel onward to Tallinn, in Estonia, and even to Russia," he said. "I'm amazed at the response I'm getting. I've now got three groups headed for Helsinki."

Both de Revere and Budnic said they concurred with the Finnish Tourist Board's growth estimates from the U.S.

Indeed, Leena Sipila, convention director with the Helsinki Tourism and Convention Bureau, said the capital tracked a 6.6% year-over-year jump in U.S. overnights this March.

"It's the trend we've been hoping for," she said, noting the U.S. has maintained its position as the fifth-largest source market for Helsinki city since 9/11.

But many Finnish suppliers from outside the Helsinki area -- which attracts the lion's share of U.S. visitors to Finland, including the 110,000 or so American cruise ship passengers each year -- said the U.S. is a secondary source market.

For example, only 2,000 Americans alight in the Aland Islands archipelago between Finland and Sweden each year, said Jari Virtanen, managing director, Aland Island Tourist Bureau.

"If a boat with 1,000 Americans pulled in to our small harbor of Mariehamn, it would feel like they were taking over the town," Virtanen joked.

For his part, Pekka Oivanen, a tourist officer at the Rauma Regional Tourist Office on Finland's west coast, said that "in a good week, we have maybe one American stopping by our local tourist office, so we're not talking about crowds."

Oivanen said he plans to promote the town more heavily to U.S. travelers as part of the Finnish Tourist Board's King's Road West promotion.

Still, he seemed disappointed with the American presence at the show.

"I do have some meetings with some U.S. buyers this week at Purpuri, but not many."

To contact reporter Kenneth Kiesnoski, send e-mail to [email protected].

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