I’m English and I’ve lived in Finland since 1982. I have been contributing as a writer and photographer to the Finnair inflight magazine Blue Wings since 1987. These days I’m especially interested in sustainable and development subjects – I’ve produced articles about PLAN’s projects in Thailand, UNICEF’s work in India, NGO Tikau’s work in India and, most recently, projects involving the Finnish Association of Nature Conservation in Madagascar. I’m a little obsessed with India these days, but I still get a thrill from arriving in a new place with my camera, wherever it happens to be.

 

 

 

Tim posts:

End of an era

Some time in the autumn of 1989 I was invited to a meeting in Helsinki of Finnair international sales representatives. I had with me a computer, one of those chunky grey boxes with tiny screens, which was supposed to be my visual aid for a short presentation I had been asked to give. I suppose desktop computers must have been a novelty in those days. This, I told my audience, was going to be at the core of a new communications channel for Finnair staff abroad. It was going to be called Finnlink.

At that time the number of Finnair staff working abroad, in front line ticket sales, at airports, in cargo operations, was significant and the majority were not Finnish. The idea of Finnlink, produced from the Information Department in the head office, then located in the so-called Kuparitalo or “Copper House” behind Helsinki’s National Museum, was to keep them in the loop about Finnair news and news from the aviation industry in Finland and globally on a weekly basis.

The only feasible way to do this was by using the Finnair reservation system, known as Finres, which involved writing the text IN BLOCK CAPITALS, using some ancient cumbersome coding system (considered state-of-the-art at the time) and individual, manual line changes. But Finnlink soon acquired a wide and loyal readership. It was, I can see now, a forerunner of the Internet and email, half a decade before these media started to take a hold in commercial and, eventually, social circles. It was an early example of Finnair’s pioneering approach to online media.

Finnlink evolved as the Internet and Intranet became commonplace, adapting to the changing environment in which Finnair’s partners gradually took over PR and ground handling functions outside Finland. It maintained its popularity with Finnair staff abroad, though, and it was always nice to be recognised at airports in London, Bangkok, New York and Munich, to name a few, as the “Finnlink Guy”.

The department moved to the Head Office near the airport, and last year to the spanking new hi-tech property, HOTT, where it feels like you only have to whisper and the lights go on and off. For a while I had my own cubby-hole in the old head office, where I also shared rooms with a variety of colleagues. Eventually Finnair Weekly, as it became known, began to concentrate on Finnair’s own marketing news, dispensing with aviation magazine and IATA news round-ups and small items of Finnish news. The readership spread beyond Finnair staff and began to focus on PR agencies, media and other external readership.

Meanwhile, Finnair media on other channels was spreading effectively but the Finnair Weekly remained an effective way of gathering all the press releases and developments of the past week into one location. That function was eroded with the growth of social media and the increasing use of regional PR agencies. So after almost a quarter of a century, my modest contribution to Finnair communications history is coming to an end. There won’t be any more newsletters after this one.

It’s been an eventful 24 years. I’ve worked in the Information Department, which became the Communications Department, through so many crises in the aviation industry I can’t even remember them all. There have been Gulf Wars, Bird Flu, SARS, volcanoes in Iceland, terrorist attacks and financial crashes. After every crisis analysts and experts have shaken their heads and predicted ultimate gloom and doom for Finnair. So far they have been proven wrong. There will likely be more extreme challenges in the future, and while it cannot take its health for granted, Finnair seems to have a special resilience and ability to adapt to change. Having recently survived 90 years of history, it’s just as well that the airline is clearly focused on what happens next, not resting on its laurels.

I’ve reported on new terminal buildings and technical hangars, aircraft fleet changes, exotic new destinations, the opening up of the Baltic market in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the rise and fall of the regional Aero airline. I’ve recorded aircraft fleet renewals and the increasing importance of environmental issues. I’ve seen the phenomenal rise of traffic to Asia and worked under five CEOs.

Some readers may have noticed that I contribute regularly for the Finnair inflight magazine, Blue Wings – in fact my name has been appearing in the magazine for longer than anybody else’s. I intend to continue to offer those contributions and perhaps I’ll be able to cooperate with Finnair in other ways in the future, including on these blog pages. I hope so.

For now, I’m thinking of all the friends and contacts I have made in Finland and around the world through my association with this airline, and all my many helpful, talented colleagues, past and present. Warm thanks to you all, and best wishes for the future. It’s given me a whole range of rich and plentiful opportunities and lots of fond memories.

For the last decade or so my “Finnair day” has normally been Friday. For my colleagues, my appearance in the office has signalled the imminent arrival of the weekend. I hope that wasn’t the only reason they were pleased to see me, but in any case, I shall miss their company and support, and that happy routine.

Bear truth about Tromsø

It was late July 2012 when I came face to face with a polar bear in Tromsø. The giant hulk of a creature suddenly appeared, towering over me on its back legs, dangerous teeth bared, vast paws outstretched.  I hadn’t seen it coming. I was fairly taken aback, as you might imagine, but my wife just went to the bar and ordered me a beer.

The polar bear that dominates the corner of the Mack brewery beer hall in Tromsø is a ‘tribute’ to the over-zealous exploits of Henry Rudi, one of Norway’s most prolific polar bear hunters, credited with having killed more than 700 of the creatures during a trigger-happy career that spanned many years. The beer hall was one of his favourite haunts later in life, although it should be stressed that his trophies were all won in northern Arctic areas, not in the near vicinity of Tromsø itself.

A bear with your beer in a Tromsø beer hall.

A bear with your beer in a Tromsø beer hall.

Our visit to Mack, which credibly claims to be the world’s most northerly brewery, took up a large part of an afternoon ashore from the Hurtigruten ferry, the famous route that links towns and communities along the Norwegian coast, from Bergen in the south to Kirkenes in the far north. As the ferry approached Tromsø, we had watched the triangular white peak of the Arctic Cathedral glide past and the cable cars heading up through mountain cloud, a scene that was pine-green in summer but which is creamy white in winter.

Tromsø is a fair sized city – the second largest above the Arctic Circle with a population of 73,000 – and has its fair share of civilized comforts, including snug hotels, cafes and restaurants. Like most Norwegian towns, it exudes a certain affluence and modernity, evidence of a shrewdly maintained oil economy. Yet there is also an otherworldliness, a remoteness, and the sense that the edge of the civilized world isn’t far away. How can a place set in such a bleakly beautiful wilderness be so… comfortable?

The mountain slopes this far north are not the vertical sheer cliffs of the fjords in more central stretches of the Norwegian coast, but they still crowd imposingly around Tromsø’s shores, providing multiple choice for winter sports fanatics. Alpine and cross-country skiers are amply catered for, as are snowshoeing, dogsledding and safaris to sample the lifestyle of the Sami, or Lapp, reindeer herders of the region.  

The city itself sprawls across an island surrounded by a broad fjord, spanned to the east by an elegant road bridge. The surrounding mountains provide a degree of shelter from the open swirl of the North Atlantic, making it a natural port for the Hurtigruten and other sea traffic.

More than anything, and most excitingly, Tromsø is known as one of the best viewing venues for the aurora borealis, the magical Northern Lights, whose awesome (lovely to use that word in its true sense for a change) displays of dancing colour light up the skies on clear winter nights. Your chances of witnessing what is probably the most beautiful natural spectacle on the planet are unusually high here, weather permitting.

And you don’t need to have to jump on the Hurtigruten ferry to get there, although it’s not a bad place to pick up the route and sample the northernmost stretch at any time of the year. Finnair’s new seasonal flights to Tromsø, three times a week, extend to March 28, 2014 – spanning the optimal aurora-viewing period.

But no polar bears. Not live ones, anyway. Pity, really.

London hosts a world of travel

A staggering total of 54.65 million passengers passed through London Heathrow in the first nine months of 2013.

A staggering total of 54.65 million passengers passed through London Heathrow in the first nine months of 2013.

I’m not sure it’s anything to boast about but so far this year I’ve flown at least 120,000 kilometres, passing through more than a dozen international airports in the process. It hurts me to say it, but the only one where the aircraft invariably takes a slightly tedious holding pattern before landing is the one that serves my own country: London Heathrow. On the positive side, I get magnificent and slightly prolonged aerial views of the capital city where I feel most at home.

I pass through Heathrow more often than any other airport, so I was especially interested in one item of ‘news’ that emerged last week: Finnair had been placed on a “list of shame” of airlines for its noise pollution at Heathrow. My eyebrows were raised: surely Finnair’s relatively small aircraft couldn’t be making a bigger noise than the vast and numerous Boeing 747s that regularly descend across West London?

My suspicions were well-founded: it seems that Finnair had neglected to update its data on Airbus aircraft types in line with the “chapter” system for noise emissions described by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), in order to upgrade the aircraft from a less impressive Chapter 3 rating to the Chapter 4 category with which they actually comply. Finnair’s place on that list of shame is therefore unwarranted.

I was in London to attend the World Travel Market, one of the biggest confluences of the global travel business community anywhere on the planet. I love travel markets and the opportunity they provide to stroll from, say, Rio to Rwanda in just a couple of minutes. It’s fun to be accosted by a Costa Rican adorned with pineapples on one corner and a lady from a Chinese hill tribe dripping with golden jewellery on the next, passing a Maasai warrior in full regalia on the way. I also admit to the vice of stuffing myself like a child with the candies and chocolates that many stands generally offer to visitors.

China leads the way for emerging travel markets in Asia.

China leads the way for emerging travel markets in Asia.

But travel fairs are also a great way to make and re-establish contacts and to find out what’s new in the world of travel generally. One of the main items under discussion in the UK travel community, apart from issues of sustainability and responsible travel, is the need for more capacity at Heathrow, if not a whole new London airport – putting an end to those extended landings at one of the world’s biggest aviation hubs. The fact that London remains so busy, of course, is a reflection of the continued and increasing appetite for air travel.

In its 2013 Industry Report, the WTM states that “nine out of ten senior travel industry executives… polled are optimistic about the prospects for both their company and the wider industry as a whole in 2014”. It doesn’t deny that “the industry still faces some hurdles, with half of those polled highlighting the negative impact international and domestic conflicts can have on the industry”. Taxes – the UK’s Air Passenger Duty is set to go up again in 2014 – and visa regulations are viewed as other obstacles.

Supporting Finnair’s own strategy is the report’s conclusion that Asia is the “next tourist hotspot”, with Finnair destination countries Vietnam and Thailand as well as Myanmar and Cambodia among the countries highlighted, but with China taking a clear lead as “the industry’s most important BRICS market”. Finnair’s own China network extends to Beijing, Chongqing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and, for the first time this summer, Xi’an.

Visit Finland's stand at the World Travel Market.

Visit Finland’s stand at the World Travel Market.

Other conclusions are more surprising. For example, there is a general assumption that the printed guidebook is in its death throes and that online travel media, much of it user-generated, is taking over. But the WTM Industry Report shows that six out of ten British holidaymakers use a hard copy traditional guidebook, compared to 25% who print from the web and 20% who use an app. Online and social media are certainly here to stay and play an increasingly important role in travel decisions and bookings, but the printed guidebook, it seems, is far from extinct.

Lastly, one more surprise, and one that aroused my suspicions again: can it really be true, as a WTM survey concluded, that the most popular celebrity family to sit next to on a flight would be the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Baby George?

Change for Good supports Vietnam’s minorities

Every weekend after the last school lesson has finished, 10-year-old Va runs eight kilometers to get back to his home and parents before darkness falls in his remote mountain village in the Dien Bien province of northern Vietnam. A rugged trench runs along the centre of the track, the course of a river during the rains, and Va and his friends have to negotiate some steep and rocky gradients to make it to their one-room family homes, basic wooden shelters with corrugated roofs and hard mud floors.

Va (right), his father Chinh and mother Ong sit down for lunch at home. "I never had the time to read or write," says Chinh. Va wants to be a teacher when he grows up.

Va (right), his father Chinh and mother Ong sit down for lunch at home. “I never had the time to read or write,” says Chinh. Va wants to be a teacher when he grows up.

Luckily Va only has to make the return trip once a week. His parents live more than three kilometers from the school, so until their son reaches secondary level they qualify to let him stay for free at a semi-boarding school for the week during term time. UNICEF‘s Country Programme for Vietnam for 2012-2016 is supporting this effective approach to education for young children, and this year Finnair passengers will be invited to support it as part of the Schools for Asia programme by contributing to the Change for Good Christmas campaign.

Va’s father, like most people in this stunningly beautiful upland region, is a farmer, growing maize and rice, which are also the two staples of the local diet. Meat is only eaten on festivals and special occasions, so protein is in short supply. Dien Bien is the second poorest province in Vietnam. At school Va enjoys a more varied and balanced diet and regular meals, as well as lessons in the majority Vietnamese language. He is also taught about hygiene and other health issues, information which he is encouraged to share with his family when he goes home.

Ten year old Ho Thi Dua is one of Va's class mates at semi-boarding school. Maths and Vietnamese are her favourite school subjects.

Ten year old Ho Thi Dua is one of Va’s class mates at semi-boarding school. Maths and Vietnamese are her favourite school subjects.

Va and his family are members of the Mong ethnic minority, one of the most disadvantaged in Vietnam. The country is one of the world’s new economic powerhouses and has achieved “lower middle-income” status in recent years, an impressive improvement reflected in an annual economic growth rate of over 5 per cent. But because of their geographical and linguistic isolation, and in spite of some genuine efforts on the part of the government, the minorities have lagged behind, not least in education.

For instance, only 60 per cent of ethnic minority children finish the first five years of their primary education compared with 86 per cent of the Kinh ethnic majority. Stunted growth in children is higher among mountain minority children than among children in the lower valley areas, too, and there is a whole raft of other statistics to confirm that these kids need support.

Thought for food and nothing else at lunchtime. Mong ethnic minority schoolchildren get well-balanced, nutritious meals at semi-boarding schools - and the meals are greatly anticipated and appreciated!

Thought for food and nothing else at lunchtime. Mong ethnic minority schoolchildren get well-balanced, nutritious meals at semi-boarding schools.

This week I was lucky enough to be taken on a UNICEF field trip to Dien Bien, to talk to Va, to other children and their families and to experience the open hospitality of the minority villages. I also witnessed – not for the first time, since I’ve also been on trips with the agency in India and Kaliningrad – the effectiveness of UNICEF’s work in the field. It’s not always glamorous or high profile, but the efforts of the agency’s dedicated staff invariably make a difference. UNICEF has a long-established and respected presence in Vietnam, which means its work has the potential to be even more effective than usual.

So when the Change for Good campaign on Finnair flights comes along in December, be assured that any contributions you make really do make a difference. Finnair cooperates with UNICEF as part of its Corporate Responsibility policy – and since Asian destinations are central to the Finnair strategy it makes sense for community-related activities to be linked to this continent whenever possible.

I’ll be writing a full length feature with photos about my trip to Dien Bien which will be published in the December issue of the Finnair inflight magazine Blue Wings – watch out for that.

Coming to grips with the gratuity

You’ve finished your exotic meal of local delicacies, you’re sipping the last of your local beer, and the moment you’ve been dreading is approaching. When the bill arrives, the situation is none the clearer and you break into a sweat. The percentage signs next to the figures above the total – are they for tax or service? Are you supposed to tip or not? How much? Will they be insulted if you don’t? Will they think you’re a brazen mug if you do? Will their friendliness turn to malice if you don’t tip enough?

It’s one of the most stressful of travel situations. Nobody likes to admit it – which makes it even worse. “Tipping is not essential or expected but the gesture will be much appreciated”: this vague advice often appears in guidebooks. Well, obviously it’s going to be appreciated. Except in Japan, where it might be regarded as slightly vulgar, if not downright insulting.

Would you dare NOT to tip a New York cab driver?

Would you dare NOT to tip a New York cab driver?

 

Whose idea was tipping in the first place? Does a journalist get a tip for writing an especially brilliant article? Does a shopkeeper receive a little extra for friendliness? Would you consider offering a little extra to the plumber who fixes your pipes or the electrician who mends your fuse box? Unless you have money to burn, of course you wouldn’t. Which is not to say these services are unappreciated. But is it the poor confused traveller’s fault that restaurant waiting staff, for instance, are so poorly paid in some countries, to the extent that “tip” may actually mean the same as “salary”? 

Tipping is an especially complex science in travel situations. Imagine checking in to a better than average New York hotel. For many travellers this is a moment of relaxation, to savour the pampering. For others, it’s a moment of intense trauma. The fellow who grabbed your cases from the taxi – what’s in it for him? The other fellow who brings them to your room and shows you how the air conditioning works is loitering at the door – it isn’t because he enjoys your company.

The waiters in the restaurant, the concierge, the chambermaids, the masseuse, the hairdresser, the spa attendant… Is five dollars an insult? Is ten dollars setting an extravagant precedent? And what if you’ve only got two singles or you haven’t had time to change a hundred? Will you be totally ignored for the rest of your visit if you don’t tip anything?

US tipping culture is highly evolved and disdain of low tippers particularly conspicuous.  But the situation could just as easily be repeated in New Delhi or Bangkok. So here are a few tipping tips for some popular Finnair destinations to lead you through the gratuity minefield – and to let you know your pain is shared: 

Thailand

In small, less tourist-oriented hotels and restaurants, tipping is not expected and watch out for the service charge often added to the bill – the official tip, in other words. Otherwise, it’s acceptable just to round up the bill and leave some small change. A tip of 40-80 baht – equivalent to one or two euros – is usually sufficient in finer hotels for bell hops and doormen who grab a taxi for you, for example. Those famous Thai smiles are worth a supplement.

Japan

The otherwise impenetrable curtain of Japanese etiquette draws back with absolute clarity when it comes to tipping: there isn’t any. It may be complicated in other ways – the language, the dining customs – but the tipping rule couldn’t be simpler: don’t. Relax, really, it’s OK.

United Kingdom

Unless it’s a fixed fair, taxi drivers may get grumpy if you don’t add a pound or two to your fare. You are never likely to see them again but it leaves a bad taste – another instance of the complex emotional blackmail at play. Leave 10-12% of the bill in restaurants and a couple of pounds for doormen who hail you a taxi. Many restaurants include a “discretionary service charge” on the bill. Discretionary ought to mean optional, but the persistent  pressure of tipping psychology means you always pay. If you want to be sure that your waiter or waitress receives his or her gratuity, it’s probably best to leave a cash tip rather than add it to your card payment.

China

As in Japan, tipping in China used to be insulting and broadly speaking it’s safe to assume that it still is. There is no need to tip in rural areas and in towns and cities that are less familiar with the ostentatious sai yan or Western traveller. Gratuities are still not standard practice but it’s increasingly common in the Western-style hotels and restaurants of megacities like Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong.

Finland

Until 10 or 15 years ago, nobody ever tipped anyone and the situation everywhere – in hotels, in taxis, in restaurants – was gloriously uncomplicated. Service mentality and its attendant complexities made a late appearance on the Finnish hospitality scene. It’s still almost unheard of to tip taxi drivers – the fares are high enough. Tipping is still unusual in all but the most upmarket hotels and restaurants, where you might add around 10% of your bill, but you will not be blacklisted for your restraint. Needless to say, “the gesture will be much appreciated”.

This column originally appeared in Finnair’s inflight magazine Blue Wings.