Pub Hölmölä is packed. Pouring two cans of Hoegaarden into what appears to be a glass bucket, the bartender shouts over the noise.
“This is our busiest night of the year, next to New Year’s Eve,” he says.
Nearby, two middle-aged couples dance to ABBA, their ski pants still bearing the day’s lift tickets. Russian, Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish and English are spoken through the din.
It would be a common sight at any mountain ski resort in North America or Europe. But this is in Levi, Finland, a town 170 km north of the Arctic Circle that features a 300-metre-high bump in a flat landscape, five and a half hours from any city larger than 60,000 people.
It’s World Cup weekend in Levi, and the town is set to make €3-3.5 million in three days.
“Without the World Cup, Levi would not be the same resort that it is now,” explains Janne Pelkonen, managing director of World Cup Levi. “It would not be one of the leading ski resorts in Northern Europe.”
It has been a drastic change. Levi became an early stop on the World Cup tour in 2004, an attractive site due its northern latitude at 67.8°N. It gets cold in Levi earlier than other stops on the tour: in November, Levi is well below freezing temperature while St. Moritz in Switzerland is still in autumn.
For almost 60 years Levi existed as a boutique ski hill, its international profile matching its size. The first chairlift was installed in 1946 and the first hotel built in 1981. Soon after the airport in nearby Kittilä opened and suddenly Levi was a viable destination for a weekend getaway or an overnight ski trip, although 80 per cent of its visitors were coming from Finland. Now Levi has 47 downhill runs, 26 ski lifts, hundreds of kilometres of cross country tracks and a bevy of activities like Finnish saunas and dog sledding, and as a result it attracts almost half of its visitors from other countries.
The tiny town has 50 per cent more beds than even Helsinki, with enough hotel space to accommodate the population of the entire region four times over. The number of people crowding the streets and filling the restaurants of Levi balloons to tens of thousands in the winter, but there are only 700 full time residents. All the new infrastructure was built to support the World Cup weekend.
“For many businesses it’s the biggest weekend of the whole season,” says Pelkonen. “If I look next weekend, or the weekend before the World Cup, it’s empty here.”
Traces of life prior to the World Cup still stand, literally in the shadows of the glitzy new buildings that have sprung up since the event came to town. Two quaint log cabins crouch at the fringes of the spotless Swiss-inspired pedestrian street among old spruce trees, a testament to how the resort may have looked 40 or 50 years ago.
It’s a testament to Levi that it’s World Cup event can draw some of the biggest international ski heroes, but, at least this year, it was also a detriment. When a female skier from Rovaniemi, three-time World Cup winner Tanja Poutiainen, didn’t compete this year her cartel of fans didn’t show up either and Pelkonen estimates that caused the town to attract 25 per cent less than its usual number of spectators.
In addition, Russians have in the past made up as much as 10 per cent of foreign visitors – the second most numerous nationality – but the weak Ruble may now be deterring Russians from coming across the border.
However, Levi has been the place where the up-and-comers come to carve out a spot among the world’s ski elite. It’s a big event that’s kept an intimate feel with athletes and spectators rubbing elbows everywhere from the lifts to the line up at the karaoke bar. The fans who show up regardless of the old faces in the race may be the first to see the new crop of world-class racers.
This year in the men’s slalom Norwegian favourite Henrik Kristoffersen landed on the top of the podium beating out the third-place contender by a full second in front of a crowd packed with Norwegians who made the long pilgrimage down to Levi. It was one of the runs that makes Levi such a crowd favourite for ski watching. At the end of the race Kistoffersen gave a few interviews and then slid down the rest of the hill among the crowd that was thronging towards the ski lodge for the après ski.
Now the bars will remain mostly empty until the Christmas season, when they will fill again with winter vacationers. But even then, the crowds who come are choosing a place that has built its brand and infrastructure based on what has become an annual tradition. Levi is a World Cup town now, all year round.