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Helsinki: How to Create a European Hub for Asia

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Helsinki: How to Create a European Hub for Asia

A relatively small airport in northern Europe became an unexpected beneficiary of growing Asia-Europe connectivity.

Helsinki: How to Create a European Hub for Asia
Credit: Flickr / Otto Karikoski

In fall 2017, a man stayed in Helsinki-Vantaa airport for an entire month. This, however, was not a real life repetition of Tom Hank’s The Terminal. The entire experiment was an advertising company to show off the airport’s facilities. The idea is interesting although I consider the campaign’s title – Life in Hel – an own goal. Apart from the concept itself, what I find interesting is that the person selected for the task was Ryan Zhu (Zhu Yuan Bing), a Chinese actor. This choice only reinforced what I had been witnessing for years: Helsinki is building its position as a Europe-Asia hub.

I am not writing this text to obtain any perks from Finnair or Finland’s government, instead my reasons are twofold. First, over the last 14 years of traveling from Europe to Asia – and that included destinations like China, India, South Korea or Indonesia – I have used the Helsinki-Vantaa airport a lot. This also meant I had a chance to compare it with its big brothers: the more traditional European hubs such as London’s Heathrow and Gatwick, Paris, Frankfurt, Munich, Barcelona, Moscow or Doha. It still amazes how a relatively small airport located far out in cold, northern Europe managed to operate so much traffic with Asia. Second, I am writing this piece with a feeling of regret that my country, Poland, being located much more centrally in Europe, has not become such a hub. I hope, however, it will learn from Finland’s example.

With 18 million passengers in 2017, Helsinki-Vantaa is not even close to Europe’s top ten busiest airports. It landed at 29th. The top hub – Heathrow – saw more than 76 million passengers in 2017. Helsinki retained a similar relative position in traffic rankings throughout the last few years but its situation should also be understood from a wider perspective. The population of Finland is approximately 5.5 million people which means that in 2017 Helsinki-Vantaa saw more than three time more air travelers than the entire number of Finland’s citizens. Moreover, most of the European flight hubs that are ahead of Helsinki in the statistics are located in the West of the Old Continent, although Moscow, and the neighboring Scandinavian airports of Stockholm and Copenhagen also see larger traffic. At the same time, however, the Finnish hub is ahead of the ports in Central and Eastern Europe, including Prague, Warsaw and Budapest, by a good few million passengers annually, although those cities enjoy a far more central location within Europe.

Any person who has done some air travel will admit that Helsinki-Vantaa is a comparatively small airport for the role it is playing. But for a place of this size and location, it stands out for the diversity and its Asian touches. A few Asian restaurants are at hand. The airport also offers Chinese-speaking guides and two Chinese-language service desks. However, the already-mentioned Ryan Zhu claimed at the end of his campaign that “it would be great more Chinese service staff in shops and restaurants so that Chinese tourists can learn more about the food they are eating and the products they are buying.”

This declaration reveals an important aspect: it’s not only about transit but about consumption. In both absolute and comparative terms, the number of Chinese travelers passing through Helsinki are still far behind those passing through Western Europe. But they are nevertheless considered to be keen shoppers. The number of arrivals from China to Helsinki rose radically in the last few years. By 2016, the number reached 300,000 passengers annually, but at the moment of writing Finnavia’s statistics for January-April 2018 already claim 140,000 arrivals from China. As far as Asia is concerned, the other two numerically important groups of passengers at Helsinki are the Japanese and the Thai. For most of them, however, Finland is a transit point. A part of the Finnish plan is to increase the number of stopovers among Asian tourists to increase the country’s income. “Our growth has been very focused, and will stay focused on Asia,” Finnair’s vice-president for traffic planning said not long ago.

Read in Western Europe, both these facts and the data may not be impressive. But it all looks very differently from the perspective of Central and Eastern Europe. Even being a transit point is better than not being a hub at all – or hardly having any connections to Asia.

While East Asia has fast become one of the focal points of our planet’s politics, economy and security issues, Central and Eastern Europe is still poorly connected. Helsinki-Vantaa offers direct flights to 18 Asian cities, including Tokyo, Beijing, Hong Kong, Seoul, Singapore, Bangkok and Delhi. In comparison, Warsaw is now directly connected to only four Asian airports: Beijing, Seoul (Incheon), Tokyo and Singapore. Out of these, the connection with Seoul was opened in 2016 and Singapore just days ago. Prague, however, fares better, especially with its growing air connections to China.

A glance at the map will reveal why Helsinki can easily serve as a transit hub between Europe and Japan or Northeastern China. Starting off from eastern Scandinavia, its planes can cut the shortest possible route between Europe and Japan over Siberia. Yet, Helsinki-Vantaa also offers direct non-stop flights towards more southeastern places in Asia, such as Singapore or Bangkok which, when measured in straight lines, are closer to Central and Eastern Europe than Finland.

Yet, if you check the map of Europe’s busiest airport you will not find any located in the Slavic countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Moreover, within Germany one of the flight hubs – Munich – is far to the south and the other – Frankfurt – to its west. If a country like Poland could have its own hub, it could cater to the needs of not only its Slavic neighbors but possibly even eastern Germany. As a Polish traveler, I naturally considered it time-saving to fly to Asia through Europe’s eastern gateways rather than travel through Western Europe, which would mean going West first in order to go East. I remember a time when an Ukrainian company, Aerosvit, operated flights to India which I used to take. Similarly, when in the 1990s Poland had its own direct flight to India some of the travelers would fly between the Czech Republic and India via Poland.

So far, however, with Helsinki’s comparative success, it seems many are going North to go East. It is hard not to marvel at this: not only is Finland small and remote, but its economy was slowing a few years ago. Finnair was facing loses as well. Moreover, the country is hardly a major international tourist destination as of now and Helsinki’s popularity is not comparable to that of, say, Prague. Instead of constantly looking at – sometimes incomparable – successes of the West, the capitals of Central and Eastern Europe should rather take a page out of Finland’s playbook and learn how Helsinki managed to build connections to Asia and cater to Asian tourists’ needs.

Be it Prague, Budapest, Warsaw or any major city in the region – all of them are geographically located to become a hub between Europe and Asia. And, with China’s rising importance, the time to become this hub is now. The contest, however, may become a tight battle. While Prague’s Old City is being flooded with Asian tourists, Poland is planning to build its new central airport west of Warsaw while Berlin is constructing its new airport as well. Whatever the outcome of this air race, one thing is clear: it is yet one more example of China’s growing importance.