In Finnish Lapland, tourists cross the Arctic Circle to fill Santa’s sack with cash

A view of the Santa Claus office in Rovaniemi, Finland where the festive period brings plenty of profitable cheer for local businesses. (Reuters)
Updated 17 December 2017
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In Finnish Lapland, tourists cross the Arctic Circle to fill Santa’s sack with cash

Rovaniemi, Finland: In the run-up to Christmas, tourists from around the world flock to the Santa Claus Village, an amusement park in Finnish Lapland, where temperatures can hit nearly -15 degrees Celsius (5 Fahrenheit).
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.
— AFP


At Jordan border, Damascus seeks to revive trade

Updated 21 October 2018
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At Jordan border, Damascus seeks to revive trade

  • The government of President Bashar Assad took back control of the Nassib border post in July
  • By reopening a key land crossing with Jordan this month, the Syrian regime is inching toward a return to trade with the wider region

BEIRUT: By reopening a key land crossing with Jordan this month, the Syrian regime is inching toward a return to trade with the wider region as it looks to boost its war-ravaged economy.
The government of President Bashar Assad took back control of the Nassib border post in July from rebels as part of a military offensive that reclaimed swathes of the south of the country.
Syria’s international trade has plummeted during the seven-year civil war, and its foreign reserves have been almost depleted.
The reopening of Nassib after a three-year hiatus, on Oct. 15, is a political victory for the Damascus regime, said Sam Heller of the International Crisis Group.
It is “a step toward reintegrating with Syria’s surroundings economically and recapturing the country’s traditional role as a conduit for regional trade,” he said.
The Nassib crossing reopens a direct land route between Syria and Jordan, but also a passage via its southern neighbor to Iraq to the east, and the Gulf to the south.
“For the Syrian government, reopening Nassib is a step toward normalization with Jordan and the broader region, and a blow to US-led attempts to isolate Damascus,” Heller said.
International pressure and numerous rounds of peace talks have failed to stem the fighting in Syria, and seven years in the regime has gained the military upper hand in the conflict.
Assad’s forces now control nearly two-thirds of the country, after a series of Russia-backed offensives against rebels.

 

Syria faces a mammoth task to revive its battered economy.
The country’s exports plummeted by more than 90 percent in the first four years of the conflict alone, from $7.9 billion to $631 million, according to a World Bank report last year.
The Syria Report, an economic weekly, said Nassib’s reopening would reconnect Syria with an “important market” in the Gulf.
But, it warned, “it is unlikely Syrian exports will recover anywhere close to the 2011 levels in the short and medium terms because the country’s production capacity has been largely destroyed.”
For now, at least, Nassib’s reopening is good news for Syrian tradesmen forced into costlier, lengthier maritime shipping since 2015.
Among them, Syrian businessman Farouk Joud was looking forward to being able to finally import goods from Jordan and the UAE via land.
Before 2015, “it would take a maximum of three days for us to receive goods, but via the sea it takes a whole month,” he told AFP.
Importing goods until recently has involved a circuitous maritime route from the Jordanian port of Aqaba via the Suez Canal, and up to a regime-held port in the northwest of the country.
“It costs twice as much as land transport via Nassib,” Joud said.
Syrian parliament member Hadi Sharaf was equally enthusiastic about fresh opportunities for Syrian exports.
“Exporting (fruit and) vegetables will have a positive economic impact, especially for much-demanded citrus fruit to Iraq,” he told AFP.
Before Syria’s war broke out in 2011, neighboring Iraq was the first destination of Syria’s non-oil exports.
The parliamentarian also hoped the revived trade route on Syria’s southern border would swell state coffers with much-needed dollars.
Before the conflict, the Nassib crossing raked in $2 million in customs fees, Sharaf said.
Last month, Syria’s Prime Minister Imad Khamis said fees at Nassib for a four-ton truck had been increased from $10 to $62.
Syria’s foreign reserves have been almost depleted due to the drop in oil exports, loss of tourism revenues and sanctions, the World Bank said.
And the local currency has lost around 90 percent of its value since the start of the war.
Lebanese businessmen are also delighted, as they can now reach other countries in the region by sending lorries through Syria and its southern border crossing.
Lebanon’s farmers “used to export more than 70 percent of their produce to Arab countries via this strategic crossing,” said Bechara Al-Asmar, head of Lebanon’s labor union.
Despite recent victories, Damascus still controls only half of the 19 crossings along Syria’s lengthy borders with Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey.
Damascus and Baghdad have said the Albukamal crossing with Iraq in eastern Syria will open soon, but did not give a specific date.
Beyond trade, there is even hope that the Nassib crossing reopening might bring some tourists back to Syria.
A Jordanian travel agency recently posted on Facebook that it was organizing daily trips to the Syrian capital by “safe and air-conditioned” bus from Monday.
“Who among us doesn’t miss the good old days in Syria?” it said.

FACTOID

BACKGROUND

Syria’s foreign reserves have been almost depleted owing to the drop in oil exports, loss of tourism revenues and sanctions, while the local currency has lost around 90 percent of its value since the start of the war in 2011.