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War destitution created Lapland's tourism boom. It began here.

War destitution created Lapland's tourism boom. It began here.

| Text: Bengt Östling Östling, photo: Cata Portin, The Provincial Museum of Lapland

The tourism industry in Finnish Lapland has a lot to thank Eleanor Roosevelt for. The presidential widow’s visit to Rovaniemi and the Arctic Circle set in motion an international Lapland industry. This year is the 70th anniversary of her visit.

Santa and the whole Santa Claus Village near Rovaniemi airport started with one single cottage. It was built in two weeks for the posh and unexpected visit in 1950. 

The so-called Roosevelt Cottage is still there. We are being shown around by Antti Nikander, Head of Development for the cooperative running the Santa Claus Village. There are plenty of black and white images and films from the construction of the first cottage and the visit itself.

Burnt-down war zone

Here you also get an understanding of why the former first lady’s visit was so important to Lapland. 

After WWII, Rovaniemi and the whole of Lapland had been burnt down by the retreating German army in 1945. The civil population of some 100,000 people had been evacuated in October 1944. The material damage was considerable. 

90% of buildings in the largest city of Rovaniemi were destroyed by bombs and fires.  The infrastructure was in an even worse state than it was before the war. There were also many landmines still left in the area, which killed and maimed several mine clearance workers for years after the war.

Roosevelt with Sami

Eleanor Roosevelt greeted at the airport. ©The Provincial Museum of Lapland

The UN Commissioner on Human Rights Eleanor Roosevelt was the widow of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. She dedicated herself to charity work after WWII through UNRRA, the precursor to UNICEF.

Midnight sun and help to help themselves

America wanted to see where help was needed, and show empathy. Mrs Roosevelt also wanted to see the midnight sun at the Arctic Circle. 

Her visit was announced in May 1950. There were two weeks to set up a programme for the visit and a destination in war-ravaged Lapland.

At that time, the Arctic Circle was not a big tourist destination. It just ran somewhere across the marshes of Lapland. Firm ground was found and roads and a cottage worth of a former first lady were built in record time.

Roosevelt in Rovaniemi Eleanor Roo0sevelt at the Polar Circle. ©The Provincial Museum of Lapland

Today the brown forest cottage is still there and still in use as a museum café and souvenir shop. 

The construction of the surrounding area started six years later. Many more people have started selling souvenirs in the area since. 

Despite the Corona pandemic, the 70 year anniversary was celebrated in the summer, attended by the US ambassador to Finland. There is still a lot of gratitude in Lapland and UNICEF is given a prominent space in the little exhibition presenting the cottage’s history.

The visit in 1950 was the beginning of long-lasting aid to Lapland. Two planes landed in Rovaniemi – one carrying thousands of tonnes of aid, the other former first lady Roosevelt and her delegation.

Sustainable construction record

The cottage is also used as a major memorial of Finnish construction workers’ professional talents. Designs were drawn up in record speed, and the timber was carried up from nearby forests. The cottage was erected in less than two weeks. The solid building was renovated five years ago. 

Legend has it the doors were put in as the former first lady and her entourage landed at Rovaniemi airport on 11 June 1950. Cleaning staff left by the backdoor as the guests approached the front door.

Roosevelt at cabin

The cottage is inaugerated. ©The Provincial Museum of Lapland

The log from some working plan meetings are dated around midnight during construction, which shows how hard people were working, points out Antti Nikander.

At the time, the Roosevelt cottage was the only building in the area. Today it is surrounded by the considerable Santa Claus Village and other commercial activity. Route 4 runs close by, one of Finland’s main arteries leading traffic from Helsinki in the south up to Lapland, past Rovaniemi to Utsjoki and further into Norway near the Russian border.

More than a symbolic gift

The UN charity was welcome in Lapland. The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration sent things like food, textiles and utensils. Much of the help came from the US and Sweden.

It was a huge donation and important to Lapland. Without it, people there would have suffered. The shipment was far more than symbolic, points out Antti Nikander.

The willingness to help has also been interpreted as a part of the superpower play between the USA and the Soviet Union. The USA wanted to keep Finland in its “Western” sphere of influence.

Finland could not accept Marshall aid from the USA, out of political considerations and because of its relationship with the Soviet Union. On the contrary, large war reparations were paid to Moscow.  

The Western humanitarian aid to Lapland’s suffering people was acceptable, however. 

Roosevelt Cottage

In any case, the visit created Lapland’s first tourist destination. Just like the former first lady, many have since wanted to buy souvenirs and send a postcard from Lapland with a special stamp from the Arctic Circle. Over time, this has become a centre for the entire Lapland tourism industry. 

Help is needed once more

The Santa Claus Village has drawn millions of tourists who have wanted to see Santa Claus' office. The Roosevelt cottage still has thousands of visitors every year. 

In 2019, more than half a million people visited the area, says Antti Nikander. The cooperative had a turnover of more than 42 million euro. In addition to souvenirs and design product sales, services and various programmes are important.

But the midnight sun that tempted the former first lady in June has lost some of its importance. Now the main visiting month is December. Except for this year.

Now Antti Nikander hopes the Coronavirus will let its grip go by next summer.

“We are used to living in six-month cycles, and usually look half a year ahead. We understand the reality we’re living in,” he says.

There will be no winter season. The aim now is to secure more domestic tourism next spring and summer. Prices have been adjusted to the domestic market, which means things are cheaper. Antti Nikander believes tourism will never be what it was again. This time, not even the Americans can help.

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Eleanor Roosevelt

Eleanor Roosevelt

Eleanor Roosevelt, 1884 - 1962, was an American UN delegate and first lady. She was married to Franklin D. Roosevelt from 1905 until his death in 1945. Because of his four-term presidency, she is the USA's longest-serving first lady. She was controversial in her role because of her voiced opinions on humanitarian reforms and civil rights. Photo from the Roosevelt Library.


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