In Finnish Lapland, tourists cross the Arctic Circle to fill Santa’s sack with cash
In Finnish Lapland, tourists cross the Arctic Circle to fill Santa’s sack with cash
They buy soft toys and souvenirs from pricey gift shops while a bearded Santa receives hundreds of admirers every day throughout December before embarking on his world tour from the valleys of Finland to the skyscrapers of New York and beyond to deliver gifts.
Holding their winter beanie hats in their hands, visitors wait patiently in line for a brief encounter with “Joulupukki” — the Finnish word for Santa Claus — and a photo opportunity in exchange for hard currency.
“We’ve seen other Santas but they weren’t the real one. But we’re told that is the real one,” said Mary Gleadall, an eight-year-old tourist from Southampton in the UK, visiting the amusement park with her parents, brother and sister.
According to Christmas lore, Santa lives in a secret place in the middle of the snowy pines of the North Pole. But the question is, where?
Since 2010, Rovaniemi, the capital of Finnish Lapland, has marketed itself as Santa’s “official home.”
Situated a few miles from the city, the Santa Claus Village is located in front of a huge gas station.
Tourists rush to cross the Arctic Circle, marked by a white line, to meet Santa Claus in his wooden home with a pointed roof.
But entering his private cottage is out of the question as Mother Claus is reportedly protective of their privacy.
In a large room, the white-bearded old man sits in an armchair next to a chest full of letters.
Each year, he receives more than 300,000 visitors, a deluge he embraces with humility.
“I’m very happy. I’m not exhausted but, of course, I get tired once in a while,” he said.
And how does Santa Claus regain his energy?
“I love to take nap every once and then. Fifteen minutes’ sleeping and then all is very good,” he said.
Shizuka Kawahara and Saki Itoi, Japanese tourists in their thirties, flew for more than 24 hours to hug Santa for a few seconds in a precious moment immortalized with a photograph taken by an elf.
The price for one shot starts at €30 ($35). Photographing with one’s own camera is forbidden as it would ruin the magic of the moment, says the staff of the house.
Four-year-old Harry Gleadall, Mary’s brother, approaches Santa without fear.
He quickly states his list of what he wants for Christmas: Transformers and some more transformers, before he skeptically shakes Santa’s hand.
“But what if it wasn’t the real Santa Claus?” Harry asks with concern.
Eager to set the record straight — and justify the long trip — his mother quickly assures him that the chubby red-clothed man is indeed the real deal.
After a tour around the shop which sells hand-made “Lapland” emblems and tons of souvenirs, the family is back in the village square, surrounded by wooden homes, Christmas carols piped out of nearby speakers.
In this winter wonderland, tourists have the opportunity to go on a reindeer sleigh ride.
A snow “safari” of 400 meters costs €14 per child and €18 per adult, an exotic experience for many foreigners who seek to discover the Arctic landscapes steeped in pink light.
The -13 degrees Celsius temperature does not discourage the plucky visitors bundled up in their ski suits.
“Everything that was told to me during childhood, it’s come true,” said Perpetua, a tourist from Dubai, describing the break from the year round desert climate as “heaven.”
“We expected magic and this is what we found,” added Max, an Italian tourist. “Everything seems to be magic — the lights, the place, everything here.”
But Miriana, a 24-year-old Italian on a university exchange program in southern Finland, was less convinced.
“The place is really nice. But I think nevertheless that it’s a bit commercial,” she said.
Gulf companies challenged by debt and rising interest rates
- Debt restructurings on the rise, but below crisis levels
- Central Bank of the UAE has raised interest rates four times since last March
There has been an uptick in recent months in heavily-borrowed companies in the Gulf seeking to restructure their debts with lenders. Although the pressure on companies is not comparable to levels witnessed in the region following the 2008 global financial crisis, rising interest rates will eventually begin to have a greater impact, say experts.
Speaking exclusively to Arab news, Matthew Wilde, a partner at consultancy PwC in Dubai, said: “We do expect that interest rate increases will gradually start to impact companies over the next 12 months, but to date the impact of hedging and the runoff of older fixed rate deals has meant the impact is fairly muted so far.”
The Central Bank of the UAE has raised interest rates four times since the start of last year, in line with action taken by the US Federal Reserve. The Fed has signalled that it will raise interest rates at least twice more before the end of the year.
Wilde added that there had been a little more pressure on company balance sheets of late, although “this shouldn’t be overplayed”.
Nevertheless, just last week, Stanford Marine Group — majority owned by a fund managed by private equity firm Abraaj Group — was reported by the New York Times to be in talks with banks to restructure a $325 million Islamic loan. The newspaper cited a Reuters report that relied on “banking sources”.
The Dubai-based oil and gas services firm, which has struggled as a result of the downturn in the hydrocarbons market since 2014, has reportedly asked banks to consider extending the maturity of its debt and restructuring repayments, after it breached certain loan covenants.
A fund managed by Abraaj owns 51 percent of Stanford Marine, with the remaining stake held by Abu Dhabi-based investment firm Waha Capital. Abraaj declined to comment.
Dubai-based theme parks operator DXB Entertainments struck a deal last month with creditors to restructure 4.2 billion dirhams ($1.1 billion) of borrowings, with visitor numbers to attractions such as Legoland Dubai and Bollywood Parks Dubai struggling to meet visitor targets.
Earlier this month, Reuters reported that Sharjah-based Gulf General Investment Company was in talks with banks to restructure loan and credit facilities after defaulting on a payment linked to 2.1 billion dirhams of debt at the end of last year.
Dubai International Capital, according to a Bloomberg report from December, has restructured its debt for the second time, reaching an agreement with banks to roll over a loan of about $1 billion. At the height of the emirate’s boom years, DIC amassed assets worth about $13 billion, including the owner of London’s Madame Tussauds waxworks museum, as well as stakes in Sony and Daimler. The firm was later forced to sell most of these assets and reschedule $2.5 billion of debt after the global financial crisis.
Wilde told Arab News: “We have seen an increasing number of listed companies restructuring or planning to restructure their capital recently — including using tools such as capital reductions and raising capital by using quasi equity instruments such as perpetual bonds.”
This has happened across the region and PwC expected this to accelerate a little as companies “respond to legislative pressures and become more familiar with the options available to fix their problems,” said Wilde.
He added that the trend was being driven by oil prices remaining below historical highs, soft economic conditions, and continued caution in the UAE’s banking sector.
On the debt restructuring side, Wilde said there had been a “reasonably steady flow of cases of debts being restructured”.
However, the volume of firms seeking to renegotiate debt remains small compared to the level of restructurings witnessed in the aftermath of Dubai’s debt crisis.
Several big name firms in the emirate were caught out by the onset of the global financial crisis, which saw the emirate’s booming economy and real estate market go into reverse.
State-owned conglomerate Dubai World, whose companies included real-estate firm Nakheel and ports operator DP World, stunned global markets in November 2009 when it asked creditors for a six-month standstill on its obligations. Dubai World restructured around $25 billion of debt in 2011, followed by a $15 billion restructuring deal in 2015.
“We would not expect it to become (comparable to 2008-9) so barring some form of sharp external impetus such as global political instability or a protectionist trade war,” said Wilde.
Nor did he see the introduction of VAT as particularly driving this trend, but rather as just one more factor impacting some already strained sectors (e.g. some sub sectors of retail) “which were already pressured by other macro factors.”