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Old 31st-December-2007   #1
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Elve Academy in Lapland

Finland will open an academy in April to train more than 2,000 elves to tend to the demands of more than 100,000 tourists searching for Santa every year, writes Kati Pohjanpalo in Helsinki.
Kati Pohjanpalo, The Ottawa Citizen; Bloomberg News with files from Reuters
Published: Thursday, December 20, 2007

'Christmas Star" can't let gruelling hours wipe away her smile as she escorts a group of about 45 tourists through the Lapland forest.

"Sometimes I work from 8 in the morning to 10 at night," says the 21-year-old "elf," whose real name is Riikka Niukkala. She's an employee of Arctic Safaris Oy, a tour company in Rovaniemi, a town 2,600 kilometres from the North Pole, on the Arctic Circle.

Snow creaks under boots as the group from Bristol, England, strolls through the candlelit woods. Christmas Star leads them to a Lappish log cabin to warm up by the fire, her red felt costume and pointy hat caked with snow.

Elves are working flat out in this northernmost region of Finland, as more and more tourists flock to the area locals claim is the true home of Santa Claus. The number of visitors to Lapland has tripled in less than a decade, with an estimated 110,000 people expected to brave the cold this season.

The shortage of tour guides has led tour companies to team up with the Rovaniemi-based Lapland Vocational College to start a one-year course in elfing. The "Tonttuakatemia," or Elf Academy, will accommodate 2,000 or so "apprentice elves."

The competencies an elf needs are vast, says Esa Säkkinen, project co-ordinator and teacher at the Lapland Vocational College.

They do more than pack the gifts that families pick up at the Christmas market outside "Santa's house" or help answer the 750,000 letters that arrive at his post office each year.

"An elf needs to know how to make a fire in the snow ... also the local nature and animals, because you never know what the clients or kids are going to ask," he said.

The new academy is the answer to a business need and an attempt to provide skills to help the long-term unemployed find out-of-season work. About 500 elves work in Rovaniemi, a town of 60,000 where, in 2006, the unemployment rate was 14 per cent, compared with a national average of 7.7 per cent.

"The companies working in the business asked us whether we could develop the profession of elves and we said 'why not?"' said Mr. Säkkinen.

A day trip to the region costs an average of 560 euros ($808 U.S.) including flights and meals. Visitors can take reindeer sleigh rides, scoot along on snowmobiles and then enjoy the highlight of the tour: a visit to Santa's Grotto for a meeting with the famous man himself.

Nationwide, tourism revenue is expected to total about $3.6 billion this year, or about 1.5 per cent of Finland's economic production, according to Statistics Finland.

Like Christmas Star, many of the elves are students in their early 20s and work only during the month before Christmas. Starting wages are about $10 an hour for organizing husky sledding, reindeer sleigh rides and snowmobile trips.

Christmas Star's day starts with greeting visitors at the airport. From there, she whisks them off to be kitted out in Arctic boots and overalls. Most Lapland tourists hail from Britain and Ireland, though more Spaniards, French and Russians are coming as well.

A day in the life of an elf isn't all smiles, twinkling lights and jingle bells. Cultural confusion can lead to some sticky situations.

"Frank Incense," also known as Mikhail Ponomarev, 22, from Murmansk, Russia, was mortified when he inadvertently offended a group of British tourists. The elf held up two fingers in a backwards V to signal a colleague that there were two empty snowmobiles available for a safari, not realizing this is an obscene hand gesture in Britain.

The biggest challenge for an elf is answering questions from children, particularly from those who may be starting to doubt Santa's existence.

"Sometimes they ask how come I don't have pointy ears," Frank Incense says. "I tell them I'm 300 in elf years, and you have to be 400 to have pointy ears."

Another frequent puzzle is why -- since the Santa story describes how little elves jump out of Mrs. Santa's porridge pot -- the elves themselves are, like most Finns, really quite tall.

"We tell the kids it's because, unlike in Britain, we get a lot of snow and have to be able to see above it," said Elina Hakala, 21, whose nom d'elf is 'Fir Cone.'

Another article: Lapland college aims to boost tourism by training 'elves' to help out Santa | the Daily Mail

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