In January 2023 Lake Saimaa District got breaking news. Lake Saimaa got the European Region of Gastronomy award given by International Institute of Gastronomy, Culture, Arts and Tourism and the region is expecting new food-loving tourists in 2024. A week after the LAB University of Applied Sciences hosted its first Blended Intensive Programme to the same theme.

Author: Jaana Häkli

Tour operators from different countries but as far as from Australia visited companies in Lake Saimaa region to create new products to their customers to attract them to the region, where tourists want to combine a nature-based relaxing holiday with e.g cultural activities related to food such as learning to make Karelian rice pasties. Slow tourism is a growing trend and services where tourists learn local experiences are excellent examples for community-based tourism.  (Bonnor 2023a & Bonnor 2023b & Heuwinkel 2023). Hence, the Blended Intensive Programme (BiP) on Branding and Marketing a Tourism Destination for Culinary and Sports Tourism funded by Erasmus+ programme and organized together with htw Saar from Germany and VIVES from Belgium could not have had a better timing.

The slow recovery of post-covid tourism

Recent news about the award were accompanied by news on how incoming tourism to Finland has recovered more slowly than in neighboring countries due to the lack of Asian travelers (Väisänen 2022). Presentations and talks with guests from GoSaimaa, Imatra Base Camp as well as from Sahanlahti Resort about to whom and how Lake Saimaa as a destination should be marketed for were insightful both ways.

Jaana's giving a lecture in front of the class.

Image 1. Jaana Kuivalainen from Sahanlahti Resort introduces her family-owned company and the case work for students. (Image: Jaana Häkli)

Domestic tourist arrivals to Lake Saimaa grew during covid-19 in summers 2020 and 2021, but numbers of international tourists have not grown as expected. Region’s weak brand recognition, proximity to Russia, the war in Ukraine, high prices and costs of electricity and ingredients, have now caused many problems for tourism and hospitality companies in the region. Then again Lake Saimaa is not aiming at becoming a destination for mass tourism but wants to attract tourists who value local lifestyle and are interested in nature, history, and culture. Experiential luxury as a concept is being marketed e.g. to Australian and Asian tourists to whom even space and unhurried pace in life can be luxury. (Bonner 2023b.) Attracting luxury market customers can have potential but for that the region must be known and tourists must get value for their money in return. Investments such as Elsanranta Villas in Sahanlahti Resort, Järvisydän and Kuru Resort in Rantasalmi could attract new travelers through their accommodation, authentic Finnish food and versatile nature-based activities depending on the season. Different districts of Lake Saimaa offer various sceneries and places worth visiting and could create grounds for a tour where a tourist group stays overnight at several places. Combining culture with an active holiday doing different kinds of nature-based sports activities such as cycling, paddle boarding or hiking is possible in a region that is often referred to as the world’s biggest spa or a perfect place for mindfulness.

Potential in food exports

Before arrival students had to search for innovative products representing a destination, gastronomy or sports and sports apparel and would deserve attention from a bigger audience. One of the products had to be an undiscovered one with a potential to become an export product. Perfect timing again as food exports from Finland is growing and have reached the value of EUR 2 billion in 2022. Growth figures in France have been 60 % when compared with previous year and in EU countries the average is 26 %, while Germany has only an increase of 10 %. Potential is there as e.g. through Amazon distribution can be arranged easily in Germany. Growth in food exports contributes positively into employment as the food sector is the 4th largest industry in Finland with 40,000 direct and about 340,000 employees indirectly. (Helsinkinews 2023.) Additionally, high-ranked chefs and wholesalers from Germany have recently visited Finland and have spoken highly about the quality of Finnish ingredients. According to Finnish food experts Finland has currently 20 – 30 food items that could end up on plates in high-class restaurants in Germany and from there with time they could end up in German homes through supermarket chains such as REWE. (Vironen 2022.)

Students’ pre-assignment presentations introduced great examples from Belgian trappist beers and mocktails to disc golf and hobby horsing just to mention a few. Students were encouraged to think outside the box, search for the undiscovered potential and to support their ideas with statistical facts. This happened with the crazy example of hobby horsing where a teenage Finnish girl had created her business based on a global fandom in social media, events in Finland as well as a hand-made production of hobby horses that cost between 190€ and 280€. Sometimes a crazy idea can turn into a profitable business! Similar experiences in becoming an entrepreneur and how a small roastery can become the best one in the country with its innovative branding became concrete during the BiP with the example of Lehmus Roastery’s cupping – the best coffee roastery of Finland.

Learning through design thinking, innovations, and mistakes

Lectures given by guests supported student teams in innovating new product and marketing ideas for the case company Sahanlahti Resort. A detailed analysis of company’s current marketing activities was combined with new product ideas and potential customer profiles. Design thinking as a method was utilized during the process and some ideas were fruitful for the company, some others showed clearly how vague an understanding of Finnish nature, population density and what has a business potential students can have. Some crazy ideas proved to have perfect timing to learning through one’s mistakes.

For the first time culinary arts students from VIVES came to the LAB University of Applied Sciences. Students of this new degree programme could show their culinary skills together with others in a Master Class conducted at Saimaa Gastro Bar. Preparing Finnish foods for a fine lunch was a memorable experience even to business students from Germany who had never prepared anything that fancy. Openness to new experiences benefited everyone in a delicious way. BiPs provide students also a wonderful opportunity to get to know a possible partner institution for a longer student exchange.

Students cook in the kitchen.

Image 2. Culinary Arts students from VIVES Belgium participating in the Master Class of Scandinavian cuisine. (Image: Jaana Häkli)

Cultural experiences from Finland

During the BiP participants were active consumers of tourism and hospitality services in the region thanks to the organizational support provided by the Erasmus+ programme. Typical Finnish experiences such as a visit in a smoked sauna, eating glow-fried salmon, snowshoe walking as well as a visit to a Saipa Ice-Hockey game were some of the cultural highlights of the week.

Two students have turned their faces to the sun in the snowy forest.

Image 3. VIVES students enjoying snowshoe walking in a Finnish forest for the first time ever. (Image: Celine Leys)

A new implementation of the same BiP will be hosted by VIVES in Belgium in 2024 and in 2025 by htw Saar in Germany. We look forward to experiencing Belgian and German culture then.


Bonnor, M. 2023a. Saimaan alueesta Euroopan ruokapääkaupunki 2024: ”Teidän on nyt mahdollista ratkaista, millaisia matkailijoita haluatte”, sanoo Diane Dodd. Cited 3 Feb 2023. Available at

Bonnor, M. 2023b. Australialainen matkanjärjestäjä varoittaa Saimaan aluetta turismin vaaroista: ”Kaikki eivät halua jakaa marjapaikkojaan vieraiden kanssa.”Cited 5 Feb 2023. Available at

Helsinkinews 2023. Finland’s food exports exceeding EUR 2 billion for the first time. Cited 3 Feb 2023. Available at

Heuwinkel, K. 2023. Lecture on community-based tourism given on 17th January 2023.

Vironen, P. 2022. Saksalainen Michelin-kokki ihastui Saimaan muikkuihin: ”Aivan mahtava maku ja rakenne. Cited 3 Feb 2023. Available at

Väisänen, M. 2022. Suomeen suuntautuva matkailu hyytyi, mutta Lapissa porskutetaan kohti ennätystalvea. Cited 3 Feb 2023. Available at


Illustration: BiP participants smiling after the memorable Saipa Ice-Hockey game. (Image: Jaana Häkli)

Published 16.2.2023

Reference to this article

Häkli, J. 2023. Perfect timing – to develop product ideas for culinary and sports tourism. LAB Pro. Cited and date of citation. Available at