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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russian Visitors Swamp Finland

APVisitors trailing out of a giant snow castle in northern Finland, which has seen increased numbers of Russian tourists.
HELSINKI -- Russian tourists flocked back to Finland in record numbers over the traditional holiday season, after a lull since the boom of the late 1990s.

An estimated 80,000 Russians -- a surge of 60 percent on one year ago -- have packed hotels, holiday resorts and stores, said Finnish Tourist Board spokesman Arto Asikainen.

Frontier officials warned of major delays over the weekend along the 1,300-kilometer joint border when most of them returned home.

During the three-week period since Christmas, hundreds of extra trains, planes and buses were run for the visitors, mostly from St. Petersburg and Moscow -- both with major railway, road and air links to Finland.

Russian tourists no longer visit just southern urban centers near the capital, Helsinki, but also venture to ski resorts in central parts of the country and Arctic Lapland -- where some of the last remaining wilderness in Europe is located.

Finnish State Railways ran 20 extra trains between Russian cities and Finland, twice as many as one year ago.

"That's a record number," said Maarit Haavisto-Koskinen, a railway spokeswoman. "Last year, we had 11 extra trains."

Many Russians see Finland as a stable, clean and nature-friendly nation that provides ideal holiday conditions, travel officials said. Also, Finland's past as part the tsarist Russian empire and familiar architecture -- including a prominent Orthodox church and Russian statues in Helsinki -- help them feel at home.

But shopping remains the major attraction.

"We are here to rest, but of course we plan to do some shopping," said Vladimir Shakhrai, 50, an architect, browsing through clothes in the men's section of the Stockmann department store.

Shakhrai, who drove from St. Petersburg with a female companion, said he would spend up to 2,000 euros ($2,600) during their three-day Helsinki visit.

Since Christmas, Russians have been a prominent sight on city streets as thousands of Muscovites and natives of St. Petersburg descend on stores, attracted by the sales. They make tax-free purchases ranging from furs to computers in greater numbers, and are spending much more than in the 1990s, officials said.

This season, Russian tourists are expected to leave behind about 50 million euros ($65 million), according to estimates by Finnish tourism officials.

"It looks like being a record year in all respects," said Jani Makinen, a researcher at the Finnish Tourist Board.

Stockmann, Finland's leading department store, is familiar to many visitors from Moscow and St. Petersburg. In 1989, it became one of the first Western stores to open an outlet in the Soviet Union, in Moscow.

"By far, Russians are our biggest tax-free clients," said Paula Nakki, who oversees the store's tax-free sales. "Fashion and clothing are the main attractions for them."

After the Soviet collapse, the number of Russian visitors to Finland steadily grew through the 1990s, peaking in 1997. But one year later, the devaluation of the ruble and the ensuing financial crisis caused a downturn, and Russians turned their attention to domestic concerns.

Also, many Finnish enterprises started overpricing their goods and services, further discouraging visitors, Asikainen, from the tourist board, said.

But, the Finns learned their lesson and the Russians are back as the economy has improved, he added. "Now, the Russians again have more money to spend abroad," Asikainen said.

Increasing numbers of Russian visitors are combining their Finnish trip with ferry cruises to neighboring Sweden.

Svetlana Kukartseva, an engineer from Moscow who visited with a family of three, did not hesitate for a moment when asked about the main attraction of the visit.

"The marine life and nature," she said, referring to the archipelagoes in the Baltic Sea on the ferry route between Finland and Sweden.