ROVANIEMI, Finland (Reuters) - Customer service, story-telling, nature studies and wilderness survival are essential skills for any elf worthy of the name.
Anyone who aspires to a job as a Santa’s helper can acquire them at a new Elf Academy in Rovaniemi, 2,600 km (1,600 miles) from the North Pole, which Finland claims as home to the “real” Santa Claus.
Christmas 2007 is in full swing as tourists seek Santa in the Arctic Circle but after the school opens next April, the 2,000 or so “elves” will be able to raise their game.
The competencies an elf needs are vast, says Esa Sakkinen, project coordinator and teacher at the Lapland Vocational College which will be running the academy.
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 local 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 Santa business is vital to the region where unemployment is nearly double the Finnish average, winter temperatures average minus 15 to minus 10 degrees Celsius (5-14 Fahrenheit), and the snow can be more than a meter deep.
The first planeload of tourists visiting Santa landed in Lapland about 20 years ago and today about 500,000 tourists -- mainly from France, Britain and Russia -- visit Rovaniemi and Santa’s nearby village each year.
The Christmas season contributed about one-third of the region’s 2006 tourist income of 540 million euros ($774.1 million). Many people arrive on a day-trip to visit Santa, learn to drive huskies, taste local delicacies and -- with luck -- glimpse the Northern Lights above pine trees fat with snow.
Despite rival Santa Claus theme parks and Christmas markets in the United States, Canada, Japan, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Germany, the region says visitors to Finnish Lapland are increasing year by year.
“The impact of tourism on our area is huge,” said Timo Rautajoki, head of Lapland’s Chamber of Commerce. “It’s also a way for us to lure people back who have left the region because of better job opportunities in the south of the country.”
The region plans to invest more than 1 billion euros to build new hotels, resorts and ski lifts, 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 percent, compared with a national average of 7.7 percent.
“The companies working in the business asked us whether we could develop the profession of elves and we said ‘why not?”’ said Sakkinen.
With about 1,000 young people leaving school or university each year and local jobs scarce, the competition to be a part of the Christmas magic is fierce. Hundreds vie for the often seasonal jobs with the region’s 10 main safari companies.
Given the hostile climate, the region’s tourist attractions focus on activities: cruises on an icebreaker, reindeer safaris, or simply hunting and canoeing. Each needs an elf or guide.
Elina Hakala, an elf in her mid-20s whose working name is Fir Cone, has been with Arctic Safaris full-time for three years, and said it can be a challenge to maintain children’s enthusiasm throughout an action-packed day at sub-zero temperatures.
“You have to create an atmosphere and still make them feel ‘OK, this is what we expected,’ and then keep the spirit throughout the day,” she said.
Exams to earn a professional certificate are part of the program, which will be open to all ages.
On arrival at the airport, elves dressed in green jackets and red gloves and hat ferry visitors on buses to their destinations through the winter twilight.
After a day driving a snowmobile they may accompany families to a reindeer farm or tell stories of Santa and Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer.
Language skills are essential: last year, visitors came from 48 countries, according to Sakkinen. Most speak English, but numbers are growing from countries farther afield, such as Japan.
All the agencies have agreed on a version of the Santa story, but elves have to be ready to answer tricky questions from children or adults who spot anomalies in the legend.
One 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 Hakala.
“Sometimes you get kids who insist they don’t believe in Santa, and that’s even harder.”
Editing by Sara Ledwith and Andrew Dobbie