Not every foreigner in Lappeenranta is Russian – and we welcome them All!
“Saisi kahvi?” a Lappeenranta resident of Central European descent kindly ventures, trying out her Finnish skills in a local coffee shop, to which the shopkeeper quickly answers: “Please wait a moment.” Another coffee shop assistant enters and asks, “Что бы вы хотели?” Meaning, in fluent Russian: “How may I help you?” Now, would this happen for example in France? No. They want to maintain their own well protected language and appreciate attempts of its usage. What we seem to be doing here is labelling every one of our residents from 97 different countries – and even the tourists who came here through our joint marketing efforts with goSaimaa, Ryanair, airBaltic or Blue 1 – as Russians.
It’s true, yes, we do welcome around two million visitors a year in Lappeenranta and there are about 1.4 million Russians among them. Also, yes, Russian purchasing power is very noticeable as they spend 111 euros on average per day trip, according to the Border Interview Survey by Statistics Finland and the Finnish Tourist Board. And their visits seem to be growing steadily from quarter to quarter, with a potential eight million visitors just over the border a few kilometres away. One day we may even have a visa-free regime, the logistics for which we must be prepared. It’s also true that the very best customer service in Russian is available in Lappeenranta and every business recognizes its customers and understands how to maximize sales from them.
Obviously we are happy to receive everyone here. But it doesn’t make us any more Russian than Helsinki, which they visit regularly too. Despite all this, we should not be blinded by this “Russianization” and recognize that they also do know English (a slim 6%, but there are many Russians to start with and these English speakers seem to live in the vicinity of St Petersburg). And although it seems that there is not another tourist group apart from Russians for whom there are signs erected in Russian from the Greek islands to the shores of Thailand, they also don’t always expect to get everything in Russian. By serving them all only in Russian inhibits them from learning, depriving them of the joys of an experimental tourist.
International University City
Not all our visitors are Russian, and most importantly Lappeenranta is an international university city where we have a wide array of foreign students as well as a fast-growing tourism destination where we get increasing numbers of European tourists. As for communication in the city, we kind of skipped Swedish somewhere along the line and are moving ahead in the Finnish-English-Russian spectrum, in that order, to serve the wider population of our residents and tourists. More and more is being translated into English and Russian and we are in the ongoing process of improving our information and services in English.
What we all need to do is make every resident, every visitor and every passer-by feel at home in a warm and supportive international atmosphere – we want them to stay and return. There is no better message to send to the world than a visitor telling someone by word-of-mouth, with conviction, how well she or he was treated in Lappeenranta and that they should go there too. It’s not the sights in the end but the human touch you remember when travelling around the world. The Lonely Planet travel guides used to state that Kouvola was not worth a visit. Now Kouvola no longer even exists in Lonely Planet’s “Finland” guide. Lappeenranta is there, and according to Lonely Planet, “Lappeenranta with its lakeside location and relaxed, friendly atmosphere make it an appealing place to spend a few days.” So we can sigh, and then make it even better for the next edition and the next set of visitors.
History repeats itself
Lappeenranta has been an international trading place since the tar sales of the Middle Ages, moving into enterprising merchants like Wolkoffs opening prospering businesses here in the 1800s and the first pizzeria in Finland, Adriano Bar, opening here in 1964. Today, with all these opportunities to travel and study, this is even easier; about a quarter of the new students at Lappeenranta University of Technology are foreign. So we find more and more foreigners following love or lesser pursuits and settling down here and continuing to start businesses. We are happy to receive more helping hands, as although we have an enormous student population in Lappeenranta our residents are aging. We are gaining in population only via immigration as for some reason we do not seem to be able to do it via the traditional methods, even in Lappeenranta. We need those 456 immigrants who moved in during 2011 to stay with us. Having a variety of backgrounds around us only makes our lives richer.
There are more and more non-Finnish clients at Wirma Lappeenranta seeking advice on how to set up a business, and in 2011 there were 18 new foreign-owned businesses registered in Lappeenranta. We are lucky, as are the proprietors. Laplandia-Market, for example, a large supermarket located in Lappeenranta near the Nuijamaa border crossing between Finland and Russia, has increased its turnover from around EUR 13 million to more than EUR 33 million in just a few years. Laplandia's profits have also more than doubled, according to its managing director Mohamed Darwich.
So the point is – the more the merrier, and the bigger the variety, the better for us. We welcome them all, in any language, or at least in fast-paced Karelian with smiling hand signs!
Mirka Rahman, Head of Marketing Communications