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The mayor of Helsinki, Jan Vapaavuori, sees great potential for the Finnish city as a transport hub, claiming it can become Asia's gateway to Europe. Sebastian Shehadi asks the questions

Q: How can you increase global awareness of Helsinki, and Finland more generally?

A: We rank very high in most international rankings, whether it’s for standard of living, education or innovation. But still we are not well known. Some might say we are the best kept secret in Europe. They think we are located in the upper right corner in the map somewhere, very far from everywhere, which of course isn’t true. Our biggest challenge is to get people and investors to better understand and know what we are, where we are and how good we are.

We have an industrial history where we have been able to raise the standard of living by specialising in B2B products: diesel engines, paper and pulp and so on. So maybe we have not been forced to do the sort of marketing that nations which are more present in the consumer markets have done for decades. Then of course we are a young nation. We are small in comparison to our neighbouring countries, which are much better known and who have done this for centuries. But then, on the other hand, I think that we have a good case.

Q:  So what are the big pull factors?

A: We are growing rapidly. Of course most big cities are. But the urbanisation rate in Finland is lower than any other western European country. That’s why it’s probable that kind of development will continue longer in Finland and more steadily in the near future than in some other places, so you can really count that growth continuing for decades.

Another issue is that our strategic geographic location is actually changing a lot. Today, 40% of the world’s population lives in either India or China and when they go to Europe the closest route is via Helsinki. Because the globe is like a ball – you don’t see it on the map, that is an illusion.

Q:  A new Dubai? Isn’t that the big stopover?

A: Actually yes – if you take the other way round then its Dubai. Helsinki and Dubai have the best connections. Already today, despite the size of Finland and Helsinki, I think it’s only British Airways and Lufthansa who have more direct flights to Asia than we have in Helsinki. We are really becoming one of these hubs. Tourism is growing more rapidly in Finland than anywhere else in northern Europe… From that point of view – that is the story to tell investors: that from the Asia point of view, Finland is the gateway to Europe. I’m sure that we are going to gain a lot due to that.

Q: Have you seen any companies come in for that reason already? Can you give one big example?

A: The best example we have so far is Ten Cent, the company that owns We Chat [a Chinese messaging app] … They chose Helsinki as their first location for a mini app for tourism. So today we have a billion Chinese people with Helsinki in their pockets… Alibaba has just opened an innovation centre in Helsinki and they are strongly present – so yes, Chinese companies are coming to the Finnish market.

Being a well functioning, predictable, reliable and safe city in an unstable world may even become a luxury. Those benefits that were previously considered as being ‘not sexy’ – which we have had for ages – are becoming a must for everyone in the world if you really want to attract investments. Having a city and a business environment built on trust where you can rely on rules, where you know that the city is functioning, what is promised is also done, where the city is safe and clean and so on. I think that those kinds of soft advantages our society has had for a long time will gain in importance in the future.

This article is sourced from fDi Magazine
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