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Finnish Claus drums up sales on year-round world tour

HELSINKI, Finland -- As a brand, Santa Claus has one major flaw: he is only really valuable for a few weeks at the end of each year. In Finland, they're trying to do something about this.

Petri Paarnio, director of Santa Claus Licensing, the firm that holds the rights to market the Santa Claus name in Finland, wants to see him bring joy to children's hearts but also to generate business — all year round and all around the world, starting with China.

“Santa Claus is an icon. He stands for symbols like good health, solidarity, and values like giving without always expecting something in return,” he said.

Santa Claus Licensing and Finnish tourist authorities both feel the iconic brand could spawn a multi-million-euro industry including computer games, international events, theme parks and merchandising.

As it is, thousands of tourists flock each Christmas to the Arctic city of Rovaniemi, the capital of Finland's northernmost Lapland region, in search of the “authentic” Santa Claus experience.

But the sparsely populated area, which claims the North Pole's most famous resident as their own, is not content with only filling hotels, activity centers, stores and restaurants over the holiday period.

“Father Christmas is Finland's best known brand but we've not made the most of his image as Finnish,” Parnio told AFP.

“Maybe because Christmas just takes place over a short period.”

Huge Potential in Asia and Russia

Though the country is in the grip of recession and budgetary austerity, the Finnish parliament in December gave the green light for 300,000 euros (US$410,000) in funding to promote Finnish Santa Claus in China.

“In Europe Christmas is traditionally seen as a short period. But in Asia Father Christmas could be promoted as a completely separate character,” said Paarnio.

Selling Santa has been made easier by national airline Finnair's increased links between Helsinki and Asia.

“We've always had very large numbers of Japanese visitors but China, Hong Kong, South Korea and Singapore are growing in importance. And Russians fill the hotels after Christmas until early January.”

And the traffic has not just been one way.

For the past two years the white-bearded man of the north has made the trip from Rovaniemi to Fukushima in Japan to raise the spirits of children affected by the 2011 tsunami.

Finnish Santa Watches His Waistline

In contrast to the roly poly American Santa, the Finnish variety has no black boots or belt but wears light brown boots made in Lapland, said Paarnio.

He also wears a long red cloak — not the red suit of the well-known American character — and sports a much longer white beard.

“The length of his beard is strictly regulated and he's in much better health — he is slimmer — and moreover he doesn't say “ho, ho, ho!” like his U.S. counterpart,” Paarnio added

The challenge, however, will be to convince consumers that the Finnish Santa is the real thing.

But putting a price tag on his worth may be going a step too far — even for those who do it for a living.

“The concept of Santa Claus is not protected by copyright so its market value is next to zero,” said Mika Maliranta, head of research at the economic think tank ETLA.

And trying to put a market value on Father Christmas may be seen as offensive in a country that takes the festive season very seriously.

“It might go against the values he stands for,” said Finnish stock market analyst Mikael Rautanen at Inderes.

“And maybe the Christmas period is commercial enough already.”

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Father Frost, second left, with his Snow Maidens, meets with Santa Claus, right, at the Nuijamaa border station between Finland and Russia in Lappeenranta, Finland, on Monday, Dec. 23. (AFP)

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