What if Finland conducted political tours?

When we think of tourism and holidays the following images may come to mind: golden beaches, turquoise seas and sun kissed islands lined with coconut palm trees. Regions that have been rocked by recent experiences of conflict tend to be perceived as less desirable holiday destinations. Enter Political Tours, the British based company that turns on a revolutionary concept for travellers who are passionate about politics and current affairs. It offers the opportunity to visit some of the world’s most prominent conflict regions.

According to Nicholas Wood, the director of Political Tours, “ultimately these tours are about really getting under the skin of a place, finding out what makes it tick, what have been the key events in its past that have shaped it and how it is changing today”. Typical clients include politicians, academics and businesses, as well as the media and people with a professional interest in international or current affairs. So far the portfolio of destinations is focussed on societies that have had very recent experiences of conflict, controversial elections and ethnic cleansing. Tour titles include: “Turkey Election 2011”, “Bosnia: Terminal State?”, Kosovo: Europe’s Youngest State”, “North Korea: Inside the World’s Most Isolated State” and “Northern Ireland: The Road to Peace”.

Wood set up Political Tours in 2009 after ten years experience working as a reporter in the Balkans. Having covered the 1999 refugee crisis in Kosovo, the fall of Milosevic, the 2001 inter-ethnic conflict in Macedonia, the 2004 Kosovo riots and the build up to Kosovo’s independence, he is no stranger to conflict. He has also lived and worked in Kosovo between 1999 and 2004, before he moved to Slovenia. In 2009, he returned to live in the UK. What does it takes for a country to become a successful Political Tours destination? “There’s no doubt that we are interested in examining issues that are in the news,” Wood states. “But we are certainly not restricted to looking exclusively at conflict – in fact as we develop we want to look at a whole range of issues like the financial crisis and its impact on the UK or Ireland. We’d like to look at the push for Scottish independence. These are tours we are in the middle of constructing.”

Some potential sights for political tours of Finland illustration Hans Eiskonen.

• Finnish-Swedish border, along the Torne River.

• Suomenlinna.

• Helsinki Workers’ House in Hakaniemi, the headquarters of the Reds during the Civil War.

• The Saksanniemi estate in Porvoo, the site of the White’s 200-strong “cavalry school” during the Civil War.

• Defensive lines such as Salpa and Mannerheim near the Finnish-Russian border, that were built by Finland when fighting against the Soviet Union during the Winter and Continuation Wars. Also Miehikkälä and Aholanvaara’s anti-tank obstacles and many bunkers, including “Sk 16”.

• WWII battlefield at Suomussalmi, and The Monument of the Winter War.

Local interest

Finland is hardly a conflict region but, nonetheless, its position between Sweden and the Soviet Union puts it in a position to make a unique contribution to Political Tours and also to take the concept in new directions. Today, Finland is a peaceful nation, but past events, especially the Civil War, have left scars on the landscape and the Finnish psyche.

“I know so little about Finland so I want to understand a lot more about it, its relationship with the rest of Europe, its frontier and ties with Russia, architecture and design,” Wood says. “What are the key trends? What worries and interests Finland most? What is surprising?”

Tourism experts and researchers have many ideas of what Finland could bring to Political Tours. The most common of these are the history with Sweden and the Soviet Union, and the Finnish Civil and Winter Wars. What then might clients expect to see on a Finnish political tour?

What runs through the northwest?

Tourists could visit a number of key sites that have fascinating stories attached to them. The Finnish-Swedish border area is believed to be one of the most peaceful in the world, though this wasn’t always the case. When the Treaty of Hamina was signed back in 1809 it resulted in significant territorial changes: the separation of Finland from Sweden to become an autonomous part of the Russian Empire. A boundary was drawn along the Torne River, which was an important waterway that combined the Swedish and Finnish settlements along both its shores. Some members of the same families were split by the boundary, which cut through a relatively homogenous cultural region and made interaction difficult. Today, many people still speak fluent Finnish on the Swedish side of the river. This Finnish dialect, “Meänkieli”, has retained the status of an official minority language in Sweden. The Treaty is also important because, as the cornerstone of the Grand Duchy of Finland, it paved the way for the eventual revival of Finnish culture, the equal position of the Finnish language, and ultimately Finland’s independence in 1917.

Civil observation

The Suomenlinna military fortress is a UNESCO World Site and one of Finland’s most popular tourist attractions. It was a prison camp – along with those situated in Lahti, Hämeenlinna, and Tammisaari – during the Finnish Civil War, which was fought in 1918 between the “Communist” Reds and “Conservative” Whites. There is a memorial stone at Suomenlinna and an exhibition about the fortress’s history.

Other civil war sites include Helsinki Workers’ House in Hakaniemi, which was the headquarters of the Reds, and today is still decorated with workers’ tool motifs that fit with the original purpose of the building. It has a famous table named the “Table of Revolution” around which Lenin, Stalin and some other luminary Bolsheviks nurtured their ideas before 1917.

A visit to Porvoo, to the east of Helsinki, would also be worthy of inclusion since it was the site of the first attempt to start serious military training among the Whites with the establishment of a 200-strong “cavalry school” at the Saksanniemi estate.

A look at the eastern border

A tour could venture further east to the Finnish-Russian border, which has many defensive lines, including Salpa and Mannerheim, built by Finland against the Soviet Union. During World War II Finland fought the Soviet Union twice in the Winter War of 1939-40 and the Continuation War of 1941-44. Today these lines remain littered with anti-tank obstacles in Miehikkälä and Aholanvaara, and many bunkers, including “Sk 16”, are still in place.

It is perhaps the Battle of Raate Road, fought during the Winter War, which is still seen today as a symbol of the entire Winter War itself. Finnish research indicates that the Soviets lost somewhere between 7,000 and 9,000 men. The former battlefield, in Suomussalmi, saw only a few minor skirmishes but clients would surely be keen to see The Monument of the Winter War, which includes a field clad with natural stones erected in memory of every soldier that died in the battles around Suomussalmi.

According to one destination management company, a Finnish political tour would also bring economic benefits. “All touristic programs can be built based on politics, by giving more in-depth meaning to the product – which could be a good way to attract more travel groups that create jobs for bus companies, guides, and for us incoming agencies,” states Kuoni. Finland would also be an opportunity to stretch the Political Tours concept a little further, something that Wood is also open to – in contrast to the other conflict regions Finland has been at peace since World War II. Clients may be interested to learn about recent Finnish nuclear decisions, Nordic welfare solutions, the success behind Finnish education and PISA, Finland before and after the EU and the rise (and fall?) of the Nokia nation. This would make for a different kind of itinerary and a travel experience that would surely compliment the work of Finland’s more mainstream tourist industry.


Gareth Rice