Tourism in a sparsely populated area matters

Finland is one of the most rural countries in Europe. About 68% of its area is defined as a sparsely populated area with a permanent population of only 5% of the population. The current Government has continued the activities of the working group on sparsely populated areas: according to the Government Programme, taking care of the vitality of the countryside and archipelago is a prerequisite for securing self-sufficiency and security of supply. The aim of our MERVA - from sea to fells -tourism project, carried out in 2022 and 2023, was to increase cooperation and networking between tourism companies in small remote sparsely populated areas and to promote sustainability and best practices. The project ended in October 2023.
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MERVA was one of the 35 tourism projects funded by a parliamentary working group of sparsely populated areas (HaMa) appointed by the previous government through the ELY Centre in Lapland with 3.4 million euros. Nature, food, fishing, and hunting tourism projects in the HaMa area were always carried out from Nauvo to Muonio. Through the MERVA project, we gained a thorough understanding of the challenges of tourism in sparsely populated regions, but also of the many opportunities.

Key themes that I liked to highlight are:


The treasures of sparsely populated areas are left undiscovered by many due to a lack of transport connections. Without own car, it has been almost impossible to reach tourist destinations. Especially young travellers no longer own a car and would like to use public or community travel services. In fact, alternative ridesharing applications have developed in the HaMa projects, such as the North Karelia-based ridesharing service. For foreign tourists, transportation services are a prerequisite. A major challenge for our region in North Ostrobothnia is poor international air connections, which significantly limit the arrival of international tourists.

Digital findability

The current traveler is searching for information online. Unfortunately, there are still flaws in the websites of small tourism companies, for example. A good website as well as visibility and discoverability in social channels is a lifeline for small tourism companies. For example, information about the Crazyland experience park in Nivala spreads through social media photos and brings more visitors without traditional marketing. Information about companies should also be better available on regional tourism websites, through which company information can be connected to the international Visit Finland Data Hub system. A good example of this is the Visit Raahe website.

Recognize your own strengths

In order to attract customers, a small travel company does not have to come up with fanciful new ideas. Nature, peace, silence, and darkness, not forgetting good service, are factors that increasingly attract both domestic and international tourists. In fact, tourism companies should recognize their strengths, and highlight them in their own communications. Awareness of one's own clientele is also important. For example, the closing event of our MERVA project was held at Törmälä Holiday Grange in Siikajoki. Important customers of the company operating in the second generation are parishes and local companies that organize training and recreation days as well as private customers having festive events.


For many travel companies, the challenge is how to get customers out of season. The tourist of a sparsely populated area is often concentrated in the summer months. Similarly, in winter tourism destinations, summer season is a challenge. The MERVA project organized a discussion and networking event at Syöte Ski Center area where entrepreneurs together discussed how to promote summer tourism. Local entrepreneurs decided to continue developing together, for example, by brainstorming events for the summer.


"Remotely" tourism entrepreneurs often act responsibly by nature. They have learned to economize, act ecologically and respect the local nature. However, they just had to learn to bring up the practicalities of responsibility in their customer marketing. Responsible operations are highlighted especially in tourism in Lapland, where the aim has been to make as much profit as possible during the short winter season. Respect for local nature and people, the fair treatment of seasonal workers, the safety of wilderness trips, etc., are matters where responsible operations are the lifeblood of tourism, especially in the north.

Collaborative Networks

In a sparsely populated area, you can't do without friends. Local cooperation between entrepreneurs, but also between nearby hotels, travel and event organizers, logistics companies and other operators is important. For example, Luonnollisesti Oulujärvi tourism company operating in Oulujärvi receives customers through nearby town Kajaani-based hotels and tourism promoter organizations. In addition to social media, information about the company and its services often travels from mouth to mouth as recommendations from acquaintances and as information about the previous accommodation. The MERVA project is an example of how good experiences of our places of visit and events have contributed to the recognition of the sites.

The MERVA project was carried out in cooperation between Kerttu Saalasti Institute of the University of Oulu and Kajaani University of Applied Sciences in North Ostrobothnia and Kainuu on 1 October 2022 -15 October 2023. The target group of the project were entrepreneurs and operators in the tourism sector, and students. More than 45 tourism companies participated in the project.

Ulla Lehtinen, D.Tech. Senior Researcher, Kerttu Saalasti Institute of the University of Oulu, Microentrepreneurship Research Group MicroENTRE