Finnmark starts seeing the light

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After another long, dark winter, the light seems to be returning to Norway’s northernmost county of Finnmark in more ways than one. The vast, Arctic area has long lost population and faced myriad social and economic problems, but now things may finally be turning around.

Finnmark is vast, scenic, and challenging. PHOTO: Morten Møst

For the first time in nearly a decade, reports newspaper Aftenposten, the total population of Finnmark rose in 2008, and again last year. The increase was modest, only 457 persons, but significant. Finnmark is, after all, an area where the number of persons moving in has only exceeded those moving out three times since 1950. And two consecutive years of population growth, however modest, hasn’t occurred since 1994.

Residents of Finnmark have long been known as having Norway’s poorest health, highest number of smokers, shortest life expectancy and highest number of unwed mothers and high school dropouts. Its residents also have long collected the highest amounts of social welfare payments in Norway, while the county otherwise ranks mostly at the bottom of lists measuring social achievement.

Now something seems to be changing. There’s been a marked increase in the number of tourists visiting Finnmark and marveling at its natural beauty, both in the summer and winter. Attempts to market everything from the Northern Lights to reindeer safaris to hotels and cafés made out of ice have been successful.

There’s also the prospect of tapping more oil and gas resources, and there’s even been attempts at gold mining. The area also is attracting more maritime activity and researchers studying the oceans, the Arctic and climate change. Finnmark also has suddenly emerged as a popular destination for seminars and conferences.

The city of Alta now has its own chocolate factory. PHOTO: Morten Møst

The prospect of new economic activity is raising spirits. Trond Magne Henriksen, communications chief for Finnmark County, told Aftenposten that local residents “are more conscious that we have to do things ourselves, not just whine and complain and wait for welfare.”

There’s still a lot more talk, though, about the promise of what Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre calls Nordområdene (the northern areas) than there is action, Professor Willy Østreng told Aftenposten. The challenge remains creation of enough good jobs that people will move to Finnmark, and stick around.

Not everyone can tackle life way above the Arctic Circle, notes the planning chief for Finnmark County, Outi Torvinen. “It’s a long way away from everything, it’s dark and it can be cold,” he said.

Still, quite a few are thriving. Camilla Nielsen of Kviby, outside of Alta, for example, tapped her love of chocolate to launch the world’s northernmost chocolate factory and it generated NOK 1.3 million in revenues last year. She now has three employees and a full-time manager who says their only problem is capacity, to produce enough to meet demand.

Arne Wikan of Kirkenes started sharing his everyday activity of driving a snowmobile over the tundra with tourists. “What’s common for us can be exotic for tourists,” Wikan told Aftenposten, while Frank Dohmen from Germany raved about his lengthy ride over the vast Arctic area in temperatures dipping down to minus-20C.  “They want to get a glimpse of real life up here.”

Two young residents of Vadsø, meanwhile, have turned a former bank into a marketing and communications firm that produces posters and websites for rock bands and concert tours. It’s called Arc Giraff: “The ‘Arc’ is for Arctic, and the ‘Giraff’ is for giraffe, which has its head in the air and feet firmly planted on the ground,” co-founder André Kvernhaug told Aftenposten. “That’s us.”

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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