We drove north from Gardermoen Airport in Oslo for about three hours in increasingly heavy snow, where we finally crossed the border into Sweden. As we climbed higher and higher into the snow-covered 'Fjälls' or 'highlands' area, passing reindeer, sled dogs and all kinds of other wildlife along the way we finally reached our destination - a small traditional Scandinavian cottage that we were told dated back several hundred years. It felt as if at any moment I might get a glimpse of Rudolf and his glowing red nose darting across the driveway. Smoke was coming out of the chimney and there was the smell of wood, cinamon and fresh waffles in the crisp air - someone was home. We had to duck our heads as we walked through the initial doorways into the cottage and 'de-snow' ourselves; we were told that people were 'shorter' back when the cottage was originally built, so the doorways were smaller. As we stepped through the doorway, the scene was bustling with a roaring fire and people sitting around actually chatting with each other rather than being glued to their devices, sipping on cream covered hot chocolate while they ate their traditional Swedish waffles. While I was a little dissapointed that I didn't see the place bustling with elves, I did feel like I had jumped back in time a few hundred years and had landed at the home of Santa Claus himself.
It turns out we were too far south for Santa whom the Finns have already laid claim to - they say that his home is in the municipality of Rovaniemi, Finland which is located about 6km from the arctic circle in Lapland. In fact, we were at the Gammelgården Hotel in Sälen, Sweden. Sälen has been one of Sweden's top winter destinations for Swedes for over 100 years and Gammelgården is a beautiful village-style lodge built around their original 200-year-old traditional Swedish cabin.
Sälen would do well to take a page out of Rovaniemi's book however, as just as the Finns have managed to create their fantastical 'Santa' story around a sleepy little town in the middle of nowhere and pitch it, turning Rovaniemi into an international tourism and economic success story, Sälen will soon have their chance to create and pitch their own story about this amazing town to the world at the end of 2019 when the new 'Scandinavian Mountains Airport' opens for business just out of Sälen. Who knows? Santa might even choose to re-route his flight path in the future and head his reindeer a little further south if they do it right.
Anders Bjernulf who works for Destination Sälenfjällen says that " … the airport will be open by mid December 2019. It will initially be a Category 3 airport for the first two years of service, and then be able to host any kind of aircraft". That means that Sälen will be able to receive visitors arriving on reindeer of the A380 kind from all parts of the globe. Anders continues "The airport will primarily service Sälen and Trysil in Norway, but we have already been contacted by resorts outside of our immediate region."
Thommy Backner is one of Sweden's most renowned hoteliers and is the owner of amongst others, the famous 82 year-old Högfjällshotel and Gamelgården hotel in Sälen. He says "... The biggest challenge is that we're seasonal. While we're in the middle of a season, it's easy to do well and see business booming. As soon as you're out of season however, it's impossible, so you can't count on the whole year to be running your business consistently high. We hope with the new airport being built here that in the future we will be able to reach out to new markets with new offerings that will bring more consistency throughout the year."
Thommy Backner is somewhat of a visionary hotelier and for over twenty years has travelled around the world studying all he can about hotels, as well as taking groups of Swedish hoteliers, restauranteurs, architects, designers and other people in the hotel business, around Asia and in particular to Thailand and China in order to learn how the they design and run their hotels. Those years of work will hopefully especially pay off in the coming years as his staff will be able to provide not only the service that local Swedes and Scandinavians expect, but also service that suits the tastes and expectations of international visitors beyond Scandivavia regardless of whether they're from the East or the West.
Just as Finland's Rovaniemi has done, Sälen is gearing up to have their towns' beds filled all year round, with their traditional snow based activities in the winter and then in the summer touting activities that include walking, hiking, jogging, camping out in the clean mountains. There are traditional lodgings as well as many modern places to choose from with thousands of new beds that will be ready within the next five years. Sälen also boasts some amazing dining experiences, from traditional Swedish fare including bear, elk, deer and herring, to other Western and Asian international restaurants.
A study was conducted recently for the British and Dutch market and when asked what activities they would be most inclined to look for in a holiday in a place like Sälen, the unanimous result was 'dog sleds'. Anyone visiting Sälen won't be dissapointed as it is home to Fjälläventyr who host some of the world's best dog sled trail rides lasting anywhere from a day to several days, taking guests through the highlands during winter and autumn.
With the new Scandinavian Mountains Airport opening Sälen up to the world, aside from increased European guests, the region will be also strategically targeting select segments of the Asian market, including in particular, China.
While previously only 0.4% of Chinese people identify themselves as 'skiers', in 2017-18 as the Chinese middle class grows and the Beijing hosted Winter Olympics in 2022 draws closer, the number of Chinese taking up skiing both outdoors and indoors is growing exponentially. While Chinese domestic ski destinations are enjoying the benefits of this, overseas destinations such as Sälen also stand to benefit from the Chinese market developing an increasing penchant for ski holidays. In the past it was mainly the Japanese and Koreans in the Asian market that were known to have a penchant for skiing and who would pay to travel for it.
Swedish tourism organsations have already started to market to the Chinese market, with Sälen or '赛伦 Sài lún' as it is translated in Mandarin, becoming a place that Chinese winter travellers in the know are talking about. The challenge for Sälen now is to learn from case studies of neighbouring countries who have targeted the Chinese and Asian markets, and try and hit the sweet spot where they get maximum benefits from these new markets withough sacrificing existing markets. One things for sure - you can expect to see Wechat and Alipay pay points springing up more and more in Scandinavia over the coming years which are mandatory for anybody wanting to court the Chinese market.
The people of Sälen have a great opportunity here to do something very special welcoming people from all parts of the world, making Sälen a truly global destination that even Santa and his reindeers won't be able to resist.