by Denise Wall
HELSINKI, Feb. 19 (Xinhua) -- Finland's unspoiled northern regions offer visitors breathtaking panoramas of pristine winter wonderlands, dazzling Northern Lights displays and other memorable Arctic experiences. It's no wonder that increasing numbers of foreign tourists have been flocking to the region.
Although the latest available data show a slight decrease in overnight stays in Lapland between 2012 and 2013 (down from 2.09 million from January to November 2012 to 2.08 million during the same period in 2013), there has been a clear trend showing more interest in the region by foreign tourists.
Between January and November 2012, overseas tourists visiting Lapland increased from just under 780,000 to over 795,000 during the same period one year later.
In spite of the encouraging statistics, tourism entrepreneurs in Finnish Lapland believe that travel growth to the region is being undermined by poor flight connections from the capital Helsinki.
Around 84 percent of our tour operators said they had lost sales because of poor flight connections, said Satu Luiro, senior tourism advisor with the Regional Council of Lapland, which administers the region, quoting a recent survey done between December 2013 and January 2014.
Those surveyed included operators in Finland, but also from other locations such as Japan and Britain.
According to Luiro, while operators who could afford to book charters weren't hit as hard, most tour operators who suffered heavy losses were dependent on normal route flights.
"Some operators said they had lost as much as 52 percent of their Lapland business," she added.
Luiro blamed weak support for northern tourism growth on excessively high ticket prices, insufficient capacity on normal air routes into Lapland, and generally thin connections flying into the region.
"The sector has mainly been dependent on Finnair (the national airline). But we need more companies to fly to Lapland. Other foreign-based airlines only fly in during the high season but we need more capacity during the off-season too," said Timo Lappi, chief executive of the Finnish Hospitality Association MARA.
Lappi said that from the visitors' perspective too there is much room for improvement in transfers from the southern capital Helsinki.
"Tourists, especially those comingfrom Asia have to wait many hours or even overnight for connections to Lapland," he noted.
Eila Kautto, sales and marketing manager with the local tour operator Aurora Travel Lapland, had a ground level view of the problem during the last winter season.
She explained that the lack of suitable air connections meant that smaller operators who could not foot the bill for charters were often forced to organize expensive ground transfers for their clients.
She added that her company and its partners had to absorb the transportation costs to avoid putting further strain on tourists' pockets.
In response to an outcry by Lapland travel entrepreneurs, the national airline Finnair promised to schedule more flights between Helsinki and Lapland from the start of the next high season in November. But the tourism industry wants to see more emphasis on year-round business for the region.
"Winter tourism is popular among Russians, Asians and Britons and we need more flight connections. But tourism has been quite seasonal and there is big potential for growth in the summer," said Timo Lappi of the hospitality association.