Photo courtesy of Carl-Johan Utsi/cjutsiphoto.se

Matador Goods Editor and MatadorU faculty Lola Akinmade Åkerström interviews Lennart Pittja, project manager of VisitSápmi – an organization that promotes sustainable travel through the Sápmi region (regions of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Kola Peninsula in Russia) and cultural exchanges with indigenous Sámi.

I first met Lennart in Jokkmokk while doing research for an article on Swedish-Sami relations. I was taken in by his passion as he described the new organization he was spearheading – VisitSápmi, and I immediately understood why.

As an indigenous Sámi himself, this project was a lot more personal on many levels.

So I reached out to him on behalf of Matador to take us behind the scenes of VisitSápmi, explain its purpose, vision, and goals as well as outline why it is such an important project in helping preserve centuries old Sámi traditions and culture.

MATADOR: What is VisitSápmi? How is it different from VisitSweden, and what does the organization aim to achieve?

Lennart Pittja: Sápmi is the Sámi name for our land. Lapland is often promoted as land of the Sámi. The term has been misused for mass tourism and simplification of the Sámi – but Sápmi is the true name of our land and we plan to make it known as such. VisitSápmi was created as a tourism and information organization to do this.

Lennart Pittja: Photo by Vägvisaren

VisitSápmi wants to promote and develop sustainable tourism. We want to be involved in decision making in Swedish tourism. We want to share the Sámi knowledge. We want people to visit us, learn and become ambassadors.

We want to develop more tourism that gives money back to Sámi communities. We want to develop this in a more respectful and sustainable way than what we see today. We want to co-operate with partners that share the same belief that sustainability is the right path for the future.

Sápmi (or Lapland) has been a magnet for tourists from all over the world and is visited by millions of tourists every year. This tourism often uses the land where Sámi people are living and herding reindeer.

From a Sámi reindeer herding perspective, tourism is mainly another intrusion and problem. Problems like forestry, mining, hydro-power damming, wind mill plants, carnivores and tourism all add up to substantial problems that today threaten the very survival of reindeer herding.

Since the herding is based on natural migration of the reindeer, we don’t use all the land all the time. Roughly we are in the mountains in the west during summer and in the forest areas in the east during winter (although some Sámi communities stay in the forest all year around). If tourism is planned and performed in co-operation and with respect for Sámi needs and requirements, tourism is an industry that need not threaten the Sámi culture or destroy land.

Therefore, one objective of VisitSápmi is to help reindeer herding communities to create a tourism management plan on how to use the land in Sápmi, and how to decide what can be accepted and what to protest against.

We cannot stop the tourism industry so we need to get involved in the development and see to it that benefits also come to the Sámi. We must show the Sámi that tourism can be a good thing. It can help to spread knowledge about Sápmi, create income and preserve traditional know-how and values. But, VisitSápmi will have a hard time convincing communities that responsible tourism is possible based on negative impacts experienced and the fear that younger people will turn away from reindeer herding.

Photo courtesy of Carl-Johan Utsi/cjutsiphoto.se

Sámi people and lifestyle is by foreigners considered one of the most charismatic and interesting things you can see and do in Scandinavia. Therefore, Scandinavia is often promoted with the pictures from Sápmi – people in traditional clothes, reindeer, lávvu, food etc. But still today, we see very few successful Sámi tourism companies in Sápmi – despite all the media/pictures/documentaries/articles and so on. So the images and the charisma of Sámi people is out on the worldwide market, but the money from tourism ends up in other people’s pockets.

It is also worth noting that Swedes generally find Sámi experiences less interesting than foreign people. The ones that are most keen are often hunters and fishermen who want to use the Sámi fishing and hunting grounds for recreation. Here, VisitSápmi has a role to educate the Swedes.

VisitSweden is the national tourism board in Sweden. It’s funded by national money from the state (50%) and the tourism industry (50%). VisitSápmi is a project, mainly funded by European Union. What will happen after the project period in regards of funding – we don’t know… If the Sámi tourism industry will have to raise funds for VisitSápmi, we are in trouble because we simply don’t have the industry that can take that role.

VisitSweden already has the responsibility to promote Sámi tourism in Sweden, but we need to educate them and they don’t have the network among the Sámi service providers. So, I don’t think that VisitSweden will be successful in promoting Sápmi without us…as little as we will be successful reaching the foreign markets without the help and support from VisitSweden.

Photo courtesy of Carl-Johan Utsi/cjutsiphoto.se

How did the idea for VisitSápmi come about?

After so many years of tourism in Sápmi – we still see few successful companies. Something has to be done. The Swedish Reindeer Herders Association (Svenska Samernas Riksförbund) finally took the role of creating VisitSápmi since many of the reindeer herders are involved in tourism either as service providers or as reindeer herders on the land where big tourism investors wants to build yet another ski-resort.

From a Sámi point of view, we need to start to create visibility and awareness for the real Sámi experiences. One solution is to create Sápmi Experience. You will find the information about that here.

Why are you personally involved with this project? Does it hold any special meaning?

For almost 15 years, I have been working within tourism. I believe that good sustainable tourism is a great way to spread knowledge about Sápmi, to preserve traditional knowledge and to create awareness of Sámi traditions and needs. I am grateful to have the opportunity to be a part of this new and exciting era in Sámi tourism. Now we are finally taking the first steps to create a Sápmi brand for sustainable tourism.

Hopefully this will help the new and existing companies to develop true Sámi experiences and reaching out to the global traveler with that. But it will also help the whole Sámi community to gain control over how our culture, traditions and images will be used in the future. Hopefully, VisitSápmi will prevent the continuing simplification of Sápmi that we see in the non-Sámi tourism industry today.

What are the challenges you foresee, especially when mixing deep traditional lifestyles with tourism?

We face many challenges in Sápmi. The reindeer is the foundation of the Sámi culture, and it’s a continuing struggle to keep the herding land intact. Many different industries are claiming the land for their needs (forestry, mining, hydro-power exploitation, tourism, ski-resorts, railroads, roads, holiday cottages and so on). If the Sámi lose too much of the land, reindeer herding will not be possible anymore.

And without the reindeer – we will not be Sámi anymore.

Newborn reindeer calf | Photo courtesy of Carl-Johan Utsi/cjutsiphoto.se

In many ways, we share the same history as many other indigenous people in the world. Although, the Scandinavian countries are known for being the protectors of minorities in the world, Sweden has not yet acknowledged the Sámi people as the indigenous people of Sweden in the constitution. Sámi people have no representation in the Swedish Parliament. The Swedish state has still not yet ratified ILO Convention 169 regarding the rights of indigenous peoples.

The government says it wants to clarify all the consequences before taking a decision. As a result, the Sami are still waiting. And waiting… You can read more here. In all of this, there’s a pattern of neglect for Sámi rights. This has also led to landowner conflicts. Traditionally the Sami did not acknowledge ownership of land. So the forested areas of Sápmi were bought up by other peoples. Now they claim unique right to use the land and plants or high fees when the reindeer come there. Court cases are continually dragging on because the ILO convention is not ratified by Sweden.

We don’t have money in the bank; our money has four legs and antlers.

Another challenge is to create the new jobs in Sápmi. We have never been rich in money. We don’t have money in the bank; our money has four legs and antlers. For many years now, many of the young Sámi people have moved away from the traditional areas to make a living. How do we create new, sustainable jobs and new, Sámi companies in Sápmi to complement the reindeer herding that is more and more restricted?

VisitSápmi believes that ethic and sustainable tourism can be a part of the solution. We have too few Sámi entrepreneurs today ready for the global traveler. Tourism revenues have gone to others and this has created a situation where Sámi are reluctant to invest properly in tourism. They often try halfheartedly. Most of the Sámi experiences are yet to be developed. It is a tough task to break this dead lock for VisitSápmi.

Photo courtesy of Carl-Johan Utsi/cjutsiphoto.se

Climate-change, environment…there’s no bigger threat to Sápmi than climate change. As a people that still very much depend on harvesting from what nature provides, we have seen the effects of climate change for many years already. The snow has changed, temperatures are not “normal” and we face difficult winter conditions for our reindeer herding. Melting and freezing lead to reindeer not being able to reach the plants and lichen.

Finally, it’s a challenge to be one people in 4 different countries. Although Sámi people do not really think about the national borders in Sápmi – it makes it harder, more difficult and more expensive to integrate Sámi from all the different countries in the working process. Also, we have 4 different governments, about 10 regional governments and numerous municipalities to handle, with their policies, administrators and laws/regulations. Definitely a challenge for the few that has to represent the Sami in a number of different stake holder processes.

How will VisitSápmi be different in terms of promoting responsible travel, and not feeding existing stereotypes?

Our most important solution is Sápmi Experience. Quality, sustainability, safety and credibility are key principles for companies awarded the Sápmi Experience Quality Mark. These companies demonstrate a holistic approach to the Sápmi living environment. They can convey information about this living environment, and offer professional arrangements for people visiting Sápmi. Visitors know that companies bearing the Sápmi Experience Quality Mark offer genuine Sámi experiences and Sámi hosts.

Tourism activities under the Sápmi Experience Quality Mark are based on the common heritage of the Sámi living environment. Sámi tourism must be sustainable over the long term. This means that tourism must be accepted and established, culturally and socially in Sámi society, and the host must be able to communicate Sámi values and way of life. Sápmi Experience operators strive for social, cultural, ecological and commercial sustainability. They are companies that respect the integrity of the Sámi culture and work to prevent its objectification.

These companies also work constructively with other businesses, public agencies, and organizations that respect the values of the Sámi tourism sector in developing Sápmi as a successful destination.

Does VisitSápmi collaborate with other travel-related organizations?

Yes. VisitSweden is an important partner, as well as the regional destination Swedish Lapland. But we also co-operate with global organizations like The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) and Adventure Travel Travel Association (ATTA). We are active in putting indigenous tourism on the adventure tourism agenda, and we are invited to talk about Sápmi Experience and Sámi tourism at Adventure Travel World Summit in Chiapas, Mexico in October.

What’s next for VisitSápmi? Are there any upcoming tours planned?

We are launching Sápmi Experience. Within 5 years, this will be a well-known brand for Sámi tourism with at least 75 approved service providers from the whole Sápmi area. The first companies have now been approved Sápmi Experience and we are working hard to go through all the applications from Sámi companies.

In a month we will also have launched our proper website for visitors.

Lennart Pittjia: Photo by Vägvisaren

We are creating marketing partnerships with both national and regional tourism partners. Sápmi Experience will be an important part of the Scandinavian brand in the world – but in a more credible way than before when Sámi tourism was a stereotype. Our common intent is promoting Sápmi with quality, sustainability, safety and credibility.

We want to create a network of companies and people, Friends of Sápmi where they help to preserve and develop Sámi culture by supporting VisitSápmi. Affinitive marketing is something we are working on hoping to find other brands and products that have customers that are attracted to Sámi tourism.

The reindeer herding communities have management plans for tourism, based on the traditional use of the land. This creates acceptance and possibilities to open up even reindeer herding for tourism. 

Community Connection

Matador Goods Editor and MatadorU faculty Lola Akinmade Åkerström has recently published some photo essays and articles on Sámi culture. Here are some below worth checking out:

Photo Essay: Centuries Old Diet Tips From Indigenous Sámi
The Swedish-Sami Consciousness on Sweden.se
Photography from Jokkmokk Sámi Festival.