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The anti-growth state of mind on the Åland islands

- written by Markus

Watchtower on Brändö

In the baltic sea, between Finland and Sweden there is a group of islands that belongs to the state of Finland but sort of governs themselves to some extent. It is truly a beautiful set of islands with a peaceful nature and a magnificant set of roads that binds some of the islands together.

I visited this weekend due to my father hitting 70 years old and we wanted to bike through some of the islands to the mainland of Finland. The only problem? Their anti-growth state of mind which makes it hard for tourism to shine.

I have lived on Swedens largest island, Gotland, for a couple of years in my past and that is an island that have approximately double the size of the population, fewer ferries going there as a destination and yet have so much more tourism, things to do and shops to shop in and I think I now know why.

When planning our trip to Åland it was hard finding information and understanding how to actually bike through the islands. Since there are several lines that you can take it wasn't that obvious from their official websites how exactly they were connected. But after some mapping on Google Maps we finally found a way that would work with the only issue that we would not make it on one day.

It's pretty much impossible to bike through the islands of Åland in one day because the last ferry to Osnäs makes it departure before you would be able to bike there in time (at least if you bike with a 70-year old and want to make a few stops along the way). The reason why we didn't want to stay overnight was because we were only going for a couple of nights, already had a place to stay close to Kustavi and staying a night would make us lose too much of the precious time.

Fine we said, let's go by car instead only to find out that you kind of have to stay one night in order to not to have to pay an extra fee. An additional €100 over the regular ferry prices is just pretty ridicolous. If we would have passed, we would of course have paid the regular ferry prices, have made several stops along the way in different shops, buying ice cream and eating lunch and probably a dinner as well. Now, we didn't spend anything since we just decided to take the ferry to Turku instead and drive to Kustavi on the mainland for no extra charge.

However, we still wanted to see Åsland and went over the ferry to Åva on one of the days we had in our stay, paid the €26 for the ferry and went to the beautiful island of Åva and Brändö. We did not however buy the ridicolously expensive self-service €3.5 coffee-machine coffee on the ferry.

When we waited for the ferry back home to Osnäs, we were there waiting one hour early because we realized there were absolutely nothing to do on the islands as a tourist, the trip there was a dissappointment. All the shops we wanted to visit that were pointed out on the tourist map were closed. Sure it was a saturday, but a saturday during high season of tourism. The only shop that was open was a little grocery shop were we bought some ice cream.

We had even trouble eating, since two of the first restaurants/cafés we arrived to were closed and luckily we went back to the only open place on the entire four connected islands it felt like. One shop that we wanted to visit and were on the tourist map had not even a sign outside their house. There were no address and the only reason we found it was because we asked a neighbor that at first hadn't heard of the place but after asking his (presumably) wife pointed us in the correct direction. We never knocked on the door because it was just a regular house with no advertisements that it was open for business.

The people of Åland are great, they are super friendly and helpful but it seems like the people in power have an anti-growth state of mind. Not everyone can move to Åland since you cannot buy property there like it was in regular Finland. You have to have some kind of connection which is good because it keeps the housing prices low but also bad because very little external cash is coming in.

I can understand wanting to keep housing prices low but if demand is great, just build more like they do everywhere that is popular? On Gotland regular people living on Gotland have to fight against people in Stockholm that have a much higher salary and buy property to use as their summer homes. Many people on Gotland dislike that, but at the same time that is also what brings in a lot of cash from the mainland. People come there and spend their money on property, renovate it and thus buy a lot of stuff and services from the island. That in turn gives people jobs and capital to pay in taxes that enables them to have good governmental services.

What I cannot understand is a fee to simply pass through. It is just super anti-growth. We would have spent hundreds of euros most likely on different things but now we only spent ~€80 with a feeling of disappointment instead of having a good experience. We will not exactly recommend people going there because it's kind of boring for a tourist. It's just plain bad for the people living on Åland due to the less tourism it brings because of this and you can clearly notice it while travelling there since barely anything is open for business.

On Gotland on the other hand, there are almost too much to do. There are so many small shops, restaurants and events. People come all the way from france to sell their delicious crêpes in the summer time. It's almost impossible to get a table there sometimes and they must bring in loads of cash, which I was very happy about when living there since I get to eat delicious crêpes and they help fund my healthcare and other services on the island.