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Festivals draw cultural tourists

by Matti Tuomisto

Finland Festivals represented ten major events when it was founded 40 years ago. Since then it has grown into an umbrella organisation for over 80 festivals that tempt arts lovers to visit Finland.

A grand vision of a land of festivals inspired the founders of Finland Festivals (FF) back in 1968. At the time the festivals it was created for were still in the bud. That year only two operas were staged at the Savonlinna Opera Festival Fidelio and Il Trovatore. The Olavinlinna Castle courtyard lacked shelter from the rain, so Fidelio was once forced to be performed in a downpour. The orchestra was replaced with a rickety grand piano played by a pianist who was huddled under a plastic cover protecting both piano and musician.

Things were considerably different by the time Kai Amberla took over as FF Director in winter 2007. The organisation now had 80 members. The trend can, Amberla says, be crystallised in a single word: professionalisation.

The four-week Savonlinna Opera Festival has virtually become a culture factory with considerable know-how about the arts and their marketing,’ says Amberla.

Many of the other original FF members have also become international events – eg. Pori Jazz , the Kaustinen Folk Music Festival , Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival and Helsinki Festival. Other first-class national and local events have emerged to join those pioneers.

Support for festivals

FF’s aim is to develop Finland’s festivals. It does this according to a five-point programme, Kai Amberla reports. At the top of the list is still lobbying with the Government, local authorities and the tourist trade.

In its marketing FF continues the work mapped out by Amberla’s predecessor, Tuomo Tirkkonen. The idea of the FF chain is to promote an image of volume and diversity.

‘It’s our job to create platforms and marketing workshops for our festivals. B-to-B contacts with the tourist trade rank highest in this respect,’ Amberla says.

The third item on the agenda is the media, the key target group being arts and travel journalists. The FF also features training, and there is now a move to buy services from the universities and colleges providing courses in arts management or training people for the tourist industry.

And last but not least: FF is a statistics and info centre. Its figures reveal that Finland’s festivals together netted about two million visitors in 2007 – in a country with a population of just over five million. In all, 700,000 tickets were sold.

Better branding required

The Director of the FF chain spends countless days a year travelling abroad. Amberla finds that the media folk specialising in music are often well informed about Finland’s festivals, whereas the knowledge of the travel editors may be surprisingly shaky.

‘The tourist sector seeks to sell experiences. The efforts to commodify Finnish Lapland have paid off. What we need now is branding, commodification and service packaging along similar lines to boost the marketing of cultural events.’

Culture and arts have been assigned a significant role in Finland’s tourism strategy. Amberla is a member of the team developing a Finland portal where travellers themselves can draw up an itinerary, book hotels and concert tickets – all from a single address.

‘Finland has largely been sold as a country of beautiful, unspoiled scenery. The focus in the new scenario is more multidimensional: what do the Finns actually do amid these wonderful lakes? This is where arts events, architecture, lifestyle as well as the people themselves come in.’

Being international in the way the Helsinki Festival is – inspired by the example of Edinburgh’s festivals – isn’t the only way for a Finnish festival to succeed, Amberla reckons. The local element may seem extremely appealing to international festival-goers, because it is something they will not find anywhere else.

‘The three-day LuostoClassic has been one of the most fabulous experiences for me. Up in the fells of Lapland you can really discover the meaning of silence. Even chamber music sounds different there from anywhere else,’ he enthuses.

Living the festival

The little festival gems are usually the brainchild of a single fanatic for whom they soon become a way of life. But to survive, the festival needs an army of voluntary helpers.

This also holds true of Vantaa Baroque , the founder of which, organist Håkan Wikman, is still its Artistic Director. The FF chain has singled out this first-rate Baroque feast as its Festival of the Year 2008.

A large number of small, weekend events has also emerged in Finland in recent years. In many cases the founder is a Finnish artist who has moved abroad but likes to return home for the summer. The lively, quirky Kokkola Opera Summer is precisely such a festival: its leading light and Artistic Director, soprano Anu Komsi, is a native of Kokkola and her husband and second-in-command is ace Finnish conductor Sakari Oramo.

The Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival, Pori Jazz, the Savonlinna Opera Festival and the Kaustinen Folk Music Festival are examples of events that have put the whole town on the map.

Tampere is profiling itself via its festivals spread over the year: the Tampere Film Festival in March, the Tampere Biennale festival of contemporary music in April, the Tampere Vocal Music Festival in June, the Tampere Theatre Festival in August and the Tampere Jazz Happening in November.

Collaboration between the city authorities and the Music Festival in the little coastal town of Naantali just north of Turku has worked extremely well. The fact that the festival funding is fixed for the whole of the local council’s four-year term in office is unique in Finland and makes long-term planning possible. The Naantali Music Festival is anchored on the town’s strong image.

‘People remember Naantali as an idyllic town by the sea as well as for its old wooden houses. All this combines to create a special atmosphere,’ says Tiina Tunturi.

Festivals also make a large contribution to the development of Finland’s brand. The only problem is that the Finns are summer people who tend to hibernate in the dark winter but in summer throw themselves wholeheartedly into sauna-bathing, swimming, staying up half the night – and doing the festivals.

The winter’s festival potential is not exploited, despite the increase in winter tourism to Finland. A few fine opening winter gambits have, however, been made – good examples are two festivals in Ostrobothnia: Kokkola Winter Accordion and the Kaustinen Chamber Music Week. The Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra is a regular guest at both. The Särestö chamber music recitals at Levi in early spring are another event with potential.

Cultural tourism is part of the cultural export project launched by the Finnish Ministry of Education together with the Ministry of Trade & Industry and the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. One of the members of the project taskforce is Kai Amberla.

‘Our festivals broadly define our culture: the field is flexible and quick to react; it is creative and takes risks in offering audiences things they don’t yet know they want,’ Amberla sums up the situation.


Translation: Susan Sinisalo
Featured photo c) Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival 2014