The financial crises ten years ago left the Åland Islands almost unscattered even though it impacted the economy. However, it was a small summer breeze compare with the winter storm Covid-19 has become for the economy. The Åland Islands’ economy is very dependent on both passenger shipping and tourism, two industries that have been impacted very severely by the crisis.
The Åland Islands traditionally have an employment rate that is among Europe’s highest. The labor participation rate is almost always over 80 % and the unemployment seldom hits over 4 %. Former Prime Minister Juha Sipilä said in the parliament during the last mandate that if Finland as a whole would have Åland’s employment rate we would both have a balanced state budget and could lower the state debt. The low unemployment rate is something the population on Åland is very proud of. Therefore, it was a shock for the whole society when the unemployment rate soared over 13 % during the first chock after the coronavirus hit Europe. The unemployment rate has since then decreased to under 10 %, but that is still extremely high for Åland.
The explanation to why the rate is high is easy. Viking Line and Silje Line have suspended their routes from Helsinki via Mariehamn to Stockholm, which means four big passenger ferries now lay idle in harbours. Like the airline industry, passenger shipping is impacted and many on Åland work onboard the ferries. Another shipping company, Eckerö, discontinued their Birka Cruises operations from Stockholm. Several hundred, many from Åland, lost their jobs when the ship is now for sale. On the Turku-Åland-Stockholm route the ships are running as normal, mainly carrying Finnish exports and imports with 50 trucks per sailing on their cargo decks, also keeping the connections to Åland open, but with a smaller crew since very few passengers are traveling.
Åland is a paradise and expected a record season for tourism this summer before Covid-19 hit. Under normal circumstances, the same number of tourists visit from mainland Finland and Sweden. This year the Swedish tourists were gone, like the Germans, the Swiss, and the rest of the Europeans. The number of Finnish tourists increased, but not as much as many had hoped. Some also seemed to be afraid of Ålands’ proximity to Sweden, where the coronavirus situation was not good in the spring. However, that has not had an effect on the Covid-19 situation on Åland.
There have been under 40 cases in total during the whole pandemic on Åland. No one has needed intensive care and only a handful have had to have care. We are very happy about this good situation and that everyone has respected the recommendations. Even though over 24 000 people arrived from Sweden (people with reasons for coming to Finland can come) and over 100 000 people came from the mainland in July and August, Åland recorded only a single case during the entire time period.
The shipping companies that run between Finland-Åland-Sweden haven’t recorded a single case of Covid-19 transmission onboard the ships since they have been taking very good precautions and introduced new hygiene protocols that could serve as benchmarks for other forms of travel. We are very pleased with the Covid-19 situation on the Åland Islands and will continue to take responsibility to keep it like it is. At the same time, we are extremely concerned about the economic effects. So when traveling abroad is not an option, you are welcome to visit Åland also in the winter for a nice hotel stay and good food as long as you feel well and don’t have any symptoms.
Mats Löfström is a Finnish politician representing Åland Centre. Löfström is the single member of parliament for the autonomous region of Åland in the Parliament of Finland. He was an Åland Centre party candidate to the Finnish Parliament on the Åland Coalition list at the 2015 Finnish parliamentary election.
This article was written for MP Talk, a regular column from the Helsinki Times in which Members of The Finnish Parliament contribute their thoughts and opinions. All opinions voiced are entirely those of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoints of the Helsinki Times.
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