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The Santa business
SANTA'S VILLAGE ON THE ARCTIC CIRCLE -- Santa Claus takes a long look at two English children sitting on his knees.
"Have you been good?" he asks gently.
The question might well be thrown back in his bushy-bearded face, considering the fuss a British family caused this month by complaining that they spent a fortune to come to Santa's village on the Arctic Circle, only to be given the brushoff.
Hilary Hughes, who brought two daughters and four grandchildren to visit Santa, claimed to the Guardian newspaper in London that they were told he was too busy to see them, then finally received them in a dining room cluttered with dirty plates.
Finns, highly sensitive about their nation's image, were horrified, and tabloid newspapers passionately bemoaned the damage to Santa's prestige. "This was most unfortunate, and we can only apologize profusely," lamented Jyrki Niva, manager of the firm that arranged the trip.
He blamed a delayed flight, adding: "We had 1,600 guests that weekend, and there were no other complaints. Everything else went smoothly."
But the flap may be just a symptom of a deeper concern that the Christmas spirit is getting lost as the Santa industry gets bigger and more regimented.
The Finns have always claimed a special relationship with Santa, and since the 1960s the idea that Santa's home is in Lapland has been strongly promoted by travel agents, the government and Finnair, the national carrier, which calls itself Santa's official airline.
Tourism took off in 1985 when Santa's first workshop opened here, 520 miles north of Helsinki, the capital.
Since then millions have flown in to sit on Santa's knee, ride reindeer sleds and snowmobiles, and visit the husky farms that dot the snowy landscape. Some 600,000 are expected this year, with more than 250 chartered flights this month alone arriving in Rovaniemi, the capital of Finnish Lapland 5 miles south of Santa's village. That's 25 percent more than last year.
To get all those multitudes off the plane, onto Santa's knee, around the attractions and out again calls for clockwork timing.
"There is a danger we will be swamped by the growing numbers, so we have to be very careful when we plan," said Niva. "Quality must come before quantity."
Santa's log cabin, originally built for a visit by Eleanor Roosevelt, widow of the U.S. president, is now dwarfed by Santa's Office and workshops, the Santa post office that receives more than 500,000 letters a year from all over the world, and dozens of souvenir stores.
Then there's SantaPark, a deep cave where visitors can listen to the sounds of Lappish nature and throw frozen snowballs, and a bar where drinks are served from ice glasses at a room temperature of 14 degrees Fahrenheit.
At the newly opened Santa's Technology Park, companies work in tourism and communication technology, including answering Santa's letters and making DVDs about Santa and Lapland.
And of course, Rovaniemi boasts a Hotel Santa Claus. In fact, three quarters of the work force in the town of 35,000 directly or indirectly services the $460 million annual tourism industry.
Has the Santa business gotten too big? No one will say so on the record for fear of hurting their own livelihood. But privately, some are worried. One waitress fears that "Santa saturation" -- tourists are shunted in and out as though on conveyor belts -- will ultimately cause a backlash.
In his quiet, cozy grotto, Santa won't be drawn into the debate. His real identity is a secret and he won't answer questions about himself. His unchanging message is the well-being of children.
"It's nice that children can have lovely presents, but the most important thing is that they should be made to feel secure and happy," Santa said. "In this way, we can all have a better, safer world."
And for 8-year-old Guy Johnson from England, the magic is still very much there.
The Santa he met in London wasn't the real thing, he said knowingly after meeting Finland's Santa. "This is the real Santa. He lives here. He was fantastic."