Åland consists of around 6,500 islands, although the majority of its population lives on one main island.

Situated between mainland Sweden and Finland, the Åland Islands offer an intriguing destination for those wishing to discover all corners of Finland.

If you’ve never been to Åland, you’ve at the very least heard the Mariehamn stop announced on the loudspeakers on your yearly Stockholm cruise. Or then Åland might bring up nostalgic memories of sitting in your high school history class while your teacher rambles on about the League of Nations – but it is more likely that the former holds true. Åland is a unique region of Finland, not only for its history as one of the few successes of the League of Nations, but for a number of historical and cultural reasons.

The Åland Islands are located in the Baltic Sea, situated between Sweden and the Finnish mainland. They consist of around 6,500 islands, although most of its population lives on one main island. Its archipelago casts a rare natural beauty and distinctiveness to the region and is something that is not found in many places around the world. It is also home to a castle and a number of churches that date back to the medieval period. The population of the Islands is just 28,000, and is often called a small “paradise” not only for its exquisiteness but because the wealth of the population is above the national average and unemployment is low. The islands are also energy efficient, with 23 per cent of Ålands’ energy coming from wind power, and the amount rising every day. Ålands’ main sources of income include shipping and ferry services, tourism, and the processing of agriculture and fisheries products. Ålands penning automatförening, or PAF, is a Finnish gambling company with a monopoly over the islands, along with gambling on cruise ferries, which generates funds for humanitarian and social issues on the islands. A perhaps less known fact about Åland is that it has the largest and oldest chips factory in all of Finland. There is also a vineyard on Åland, and only one Macdonald’s in the entire region.

A land in Swedish

Although Åland is part of Finland, it has a few features that distinguish it from other Finnish regions. Firstly, although Finland has two official languages, the main language of Åland is Swedish. As such, all governmental communication within Åland and between Åland and the central government in Helsinki, is done in Swedish. In addition to this, Åland also has its own flag, which was voted on and chosen in 1953. The region also has a particular autonomous political system, which isn’t found in any other Finnish regions. The political system consists of a devolved parliament and policy areas where it acts as a national government. The government is known as the Lagtinget, and is the highest authority on the islands.

Åland’s unique rules arose from a series of historical events. Until the 1800s, the islands were part of the Kingdom of Sweden, along with Finland. In 1809 both were given to Russia. When Finland gained its independence in 1917, the representatives of the Åland municipalities attempted to seek reunion with Sweden, but their demands were rejected by Finland. As the question of Åland’s status began to escalate, it appeared to be leading to open conflict between Sweden and Finland. The question was thus referred to the League of Nations, the main international body at the time. The League granted Finland sovereignty over Åland in 1921, as long as Finland gave autonomy to the region. Finland was required to guarantee Åland their Swedish language, culture, local customs, and a system of government. Åland’s demilitarisation and neutrality was also confirmed. All were secured in the Autonomy Act of 1920, which has since been revised twice, in 1951 and 1993. Åland’s demilitarised and neutral status originates from peace negotiations in Paris in 1856 following the Crimean War. As a demilitarised region, there can be no military presence in the province, and no forts or military bases may be built on its islands. Although all Finnish men are required to go to the army for a year, Ålanders are exempt from the requirement. Its neutrality ensures that it must be kept outside the threat of war in case of conflict.

Message in a bottle

Åland has a remarkable story about a historic shipwreck found in the province. Its bordering sea is the setting for a recent discovery of the oldest champagne in the world, in a wreckage believed to have occurred between 1825 and 1830. The shipwreck was discovered in July 2010, and 168 bottles of champagne were found, although many were broken or contaminated. Both Veuve Cliquot and Juglar (now part of Jaquesson) champagnes were among the bottles found in the wreckage.

The bottles are believed to be from the 1780s, making the champagne nearly 200 years old. Many of the bottles were perfectly preserved because of the cold and dark of the seabed. When they were tested, they apparently tasted sweet, which was typical of that time period, with hints of mushrooms and honey. A few of the bottles were auctioned off in 2011 and the most expensive bottle was sold for €30,000, setting the record for most expensive auctioned bottle of champagne. The Åland government donated the profits to charities to help with Baltic Sea environment, marine archaeology and maritime history.

When the divers brought the first bottle to the surface, the pressure caused the cork to pop. The diver took a swig, expecting it to taste like seawater – but found it sweet so they enjoyed the rest of the bottle. Little did they know that the bottle was worth €30,000!

An island to govern

Åland’s parliament, the Lagtinget, consists of 30 members of parliament who appoint the Åland government. The Lagtinget has power over certain devolved policy areas, including the right to pass legislation on education, culture, the preservation of ancient monuments, the environment, promotion of industry, internal transport, local government, policing, postal communications, and radio and television, and has some powers to distribute its budget. Åland’s budget consists of domestic revenues, and a sum from the Finnish government. Finland retains rights to legislate over issues of foreign affairs, most areas of civil and criminal law, the court system, customs, and state taxation. Åland has one representative in the Finnish government to ensure that their interests are taken in to account in the shared policy areas.

Åland is also exceptional in the European arena, claiming a special status when it comes to particular EU regulations. When Finland became part of the EU in 1995 Åland consented to joining the Union, yet its relationship with the EU is different from Finland’s relationship. Åland retains special provisions for purchasing of real estate and the right to conduct business in Åland, outlined in the “Åland protocol”. The protocol states that in order to buy or hold real estate, or run a business, a person must hold a “right of domicile”. Right of domicile is acquired at birth, but may be lost if the individual leaves the region for more than five years. Immigrants who have lived in Åland for at least five years and are proficient in Swedish can apply for the status. To receive a right of domicile, one must get permission from the authorities of the Åland islands. The Åland protocol also allows Åland to be regarded as a third territory when it comes to indirect taxation. This permits the sale of tax-free goods to passengers travelling between Åland and other EU member states, even though individuals are subject to taxes when travelling to and from Finland – which might explain why the cruises to Sweden via Mariehamn are so popular!

Alicia Jensen
Images: www.visitaland.com