Sunday, 8 January 2017

The Great North (2): One IKEA and two New Year's Eve

I guess for many readers, the idea of spending the whole Saturday at Ikea will cause them an anxiety attack and  an uncontrollable need to flee. To me, despite my passion for all that is Swedish, my blood runs cold when my wife says resignedly: "On Saturday, I fear that we will have to go to Ikea". Thousands of people, children running around between "Bjursta" tables and "Sultan" beds, and couples discussing whether it is better an "Ektorp" or a "Beddinge" sofa...

But what's the relation between remote and isolated places, and crowdy Ikea warehouses? Maybe for you, the Swedish furniture store is a nightmare, but there are people who consider Ikea as the best destination!

At the Gulf of Bothnia northern end, in the Baltic Sea, the Scandinavian Peninsula merges the European continent. The border between Scandinavia (Sweden) and the mainland (Finland) is marked by Torne river (in the map above is written in Swedish: "Torneälv"), that runs from the coast, northbound to Kiruna surroundings (see the first post of the series). At the same point where Torne river flows into the Baltic, there is a city; well, actually two cities; no wait, it's just one, Oh! forgive it!. People on the east bank of the Torne River lives in a town called... Tornio (long live originality!) that belongs to Finland. The town on the west bank of the river belongs to Sweden and is called Haparanda (Swedes are so creative!).

I said the fact whether it was one or two cities because, originally, it was a single village. For many centuries, Finland was part of the Kingdom of Sweden and the city of Tornio (in Finnish), or Torneå (in Swedish), was a prosperous city, considered the center of all trade with Lapland. Even there are some historians who assert that, during the 17th century, the town was the richest in Sweden, despite its few half thousand inhabitants.

Sweden's defeat at war against Russia in 1808, made Finland fall into the hands of the Russians. By desire of Czar Alexander I, Tornio went on Russian Empire's side. But as border was established in the Torne river, and there were houses in both sides of the river, a small part of the city remained on the Swedish side. So the Swedes gave to this few houses that remained in their hands the name of Haparanda.

Russian laziness made the once prosperous Tornio fell into utter decay; and neigbouring Haparanda was too small to be able to prosper alone. With Finnish independence achievement in 1917, the situation did not improve much, and it was not until after the Second World War when Tornio's economy improved, especially thanks to the production of the successful local beer: Lapin Kulta.

But make no mistake, at the beginning of the 21st century, both twin towns, Tornio and Haparanda, did not offer many opportunities for young people. Many people was leaving towards the south, either Sweden or Finland, for studying or just to look for a better job. And this depopulation was not only happening in the main two cities; all region was losing inhabitants year by year. 

In the early 2000s, Haparanda's mayor, Sven-Erik Butch, had an idea. It could seem a foolish idea for those living far from the Arctic Circle, but for him and his team was full of sense. The mayor was able to contact Ingvar Kamprad, Ikea's owner, and asked him only one question: "Take a map of the Nordic countries, put it upside down, and tell me what you see" said Sven-Erik. So did Kamprad, realizing that lots of people, distributed in four countries (Sweden, Finland, Norway and Russia), had no access to any Ikea. 

On November 15th 2006, more than 5,000 people lined up neatly (as always in Sweden!) under a heavy snowfall, waiting for Ikea Haparanda's doors opening for the first time. Success was immediate, and in some months, Torne river commercial area attracted many more stores: I-Huset, Haglöfs, Candy World ... many brands found that the Arctic was a fantastic market! 

But, the economic potential expected by Mayor Sven-Erik Butch, was it real? Yes. Following the success of Ikea Haparanda, experts analyzed what the population of Arctic Circle represented as a consumption market. After the Ikea experience, however, survey showed the market was not splitted by borders; they analyzed the entire area population, no matter if people were Swedish, Finnish, Norwegian or Russian. And so, studies showed that there is a population of nearly 1.5 million people eager to buy, just as any European would, with the only difference of long distances. No matter in which country are they living, and in which country are sold the goods to be bought. If you look at the parking lot of Ikea Haparanda, any regular day, you will notice a difference when comparing with the rest of Ikea around world: it's full of coaches! Coach plates (and also car plates, of course!) show people come from every corner of the Great North to Ikea Haparanda. Many coaches leave early in the morning from remote locations, either in Arctic Russia, Norway, Sweden or Finland, full of Arctic inhabitants ready to travel more than 400km, and buy in Ikea. Then, at dawn, they get back on the bus and travel back home, maybe for more than 5 hours. Seems crazy, but Haparanda's Ikea has been able to revitalize the economy of both cities and stop their depopulation. 

Oops! And the two New Year's Eves from the post's title? It's simple: Haparanda-Tornio is one of the few cities (well, I do not know any other) that are separated by a border ... and in two different time zones! So, while Sweden uses CET (Central European Time, or UTC + 1), Finland is located in EET (Eastern European Time, or UTC + 2) zone. And this allows that each New Year's eve, people celebrates the first midnight 12 strokes in Tornio, and then, they cross the border and celebrate again a New Year, just one hour later, in Haparanda! 

As you can see, Tornio and Haparanda enjoy a very good relationship, and it's getting closer and closer. Gradually, both cities started to share municipal services, institutions and schools and now, they even share a golf course located in the border. So finally, they have decided to go one step further and become (legally) a single city. And how are they going to call the new merged town? Tornio-and-Haparanda? Haparanda-Tornio? None of these! Flaunting of great creativity skills, both cities have decided to get renamed (oh, my God!) as EuroCity! 

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