By Jacqueline Ross – Tourism and Marketing, South Ayrshire Council
‘I felt my lungs inflate with the onrush of scenery – air, mountains, trees, people. I thought – this is what it is to be happy’ Sylvia Platt
They say that the best things in life are free and a recent nature tourism learning journey to Finland certainly illustrated this point. Combining elements of earth, air, fire and water, the journey took hold of the senses and combined the beauty of our natural world with activities to suit an emerging tourism market. Participants would have been hard pressed to not depart exhilarated and inspired.
We were there to represent the Galloway and Southern Ayrshire UNESCO biosphere. Designated as a recognition of the fantastic array of landscapes, wildlife, cultural heritage and learning opportunities on offer, the nature tourism possibilities in our area are endless. From extreme wind and water sports on our coastline to tranquil art in rural Scotland. We often joke about how we have too much product to focus on one thing. In contrast, the North Karelia region of Finland that we visited appeared less rich in other products, but we still left feeling enriched. How do their challenges differ from ours?
Into the wild
The Finnish location was remote. Just 2 km from the Russian border you were more likely to spot a crowd of bears than a crowd of people. It was quiet, it was secluded, and it lacked the Christmas appeal of its popular neighbour Lapland. But this was its appeal. If you wanted to really get away from it all this was a good shout. Flights from Edinburgh to Helsinki then Helsinki to Joensuu, followed by road travel following a line of a million trees took us to a picturesque spot worthy of a Facebook ‘check in’.
Communicating with nature and with people
The days that followed were filled with a slow nature triathlon of biking, hiking and sailing in locations such as Mohko and Ilomantsi. Personal highlights were nights by the tipi log fire, star gazing, the authentic Finnish sauna and of course the genuine warmth and hospitality of our generous hosts and fellow visitors. A number of truly inspirational speakers peppered the visit. From those who knew about the national parks to entrepreneurs prepared to purchase and develop the local botanic centre rather than see the plants burn. Historians, musicians and local people joined in with us. It was inspiring, evoking a sense of European belonging and could not have been a more rewarding trip. I place myself firmly in the target audience for this kind of destination.
There are similarities between the two biosphere areas of South Ayrshire and Galloway and North Karelia. We both have more popular neighbours. We both could be described as a bit more of an effort to get to. We both have beautiful landscapes with the potential to promote this to the world.
Our Finnish hosts at times seemed a little doubtful of their tourism prowess and ability to persuade anyone to visit. In contrast to us they lacked larger attractions, their product seemed mainly nature driven whereas ours has many other facets. Their advantage is that they can then focus on this. Bears, berries and getting back to real nature should be top of their agenda with their Instagram filled with romantic lakeside cottages, snow topped saunas and that chance of coming face to face with a bear. Crowds are overrated. This particular experience carried a charm that could appeal to many target audiences.