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Helsinki's potential as a travel destination for young people

Survey responses of young people from 10 countries portray Helsinki as a city with a great natural environment and as a safe city and an unusual destination. Although evaluated as a relatively interesting destination for young people, Helsinki lags slightly behind other Nordic capitals.


During the past decades, Helsinki has developed into a small metropolis with its own distinctive character.  Helsinki has succeeded in struggling out of the shadow of other cities, such as Berlin and Stockholm, and has taken a number of top spots in international city rankings. The list is long (City of Helsinki 2015). Despite this success, Helsinki has not managed to steal its share of the global tourism growth. During the first six months of 2015, the number of bednights has declined in Helsinki whilst in Stockholm and Copenhagen the tendency was in the opposite direction.

Without forgetting other tourist segments such as active seniors, the marketing of the City of Helsinki is more and more focusing on young people. According to WYSE Travel Confederation (2013), the travelling behaviour of young people has changed. They travel more than before, spend more money than before and the trips are longer. According to the same report, young travellers represent one fifth of international tourism.

Motives seem to be changing as well. More than ever, young people travel for work-related purposes and for educational and cultural reasons. From this perspective, it is no surprise that tourism developers want to take this economic potential seriously. Information spreads rapidly amongst young people, and it can be assumed that marketing funds spent on this active demographic would generate returns in the longer term.

Due to the rise of interest towards Helsinki, it sounds like there might be a niche for the Finnish capital. However, the situation is challenging. The competition is harsh, and creating a differentiated image is difficult. How could Helsinki attract a bigger share of the young people who are planning to travel but have no particular destination in mind? Without knowing the preferences of the target group, this is impossible to achieve. To understand future tourists and their motives, focusing on the heterogeneous groups of young people is thus obviously pivotal.

The study

In the end of 2014, the marketing unit of the City of Helsinki started a project aiming to examine young people’s opinions of Helsinki. The data was gathered by TNS Gallup in 10 countries by utilising the extensive internet panels in each country. The countries were Sweden, United Kingdom, Germany, France, Netherlands, Italy, Spain, Russia, South Korea and Japan. All the respondents were 16–25 years of age and had travelled abroad at least once during the last 12 months.

The questionnaire was constructed with the help of City of Helsinki Urban Facts and was made up of four parts. The first part consisted of basic background questions on gender, age, employment status, education, welfare (subjective assessment), travelling frequency, preferred travelling company and foreign experience. In this article, the background determinants are examined only briefly. A more detailed study report will be published later (Mustonen 2015).

In the second part, respondents were asked to evaluate their interest towards different cities by using a 1-to-5 Likert scale. The cities that were presented here were the most important competitors of Helsinki: Copenhagen, Oslo, Stockholm, Tallinn, Berlin, St Petersburg and Amsterdam.

The third part of the questionnaire concerned Helsinki and contained a series of questions including the open-ended question: “What comes to mind when you think of Helsinki?” Respondents were also asked to evaluate how well they knew Helsinki and to rate whether their view of Helsinki was positive or negative (1–5). They also asked to consider 23 statements and assess how applicable these were to the context of Helsinki – again on a scale of 1 to 5. Further on, the same statements were presented as motives for a trip and the respondents were asked to choose the five most relevant for themselves.

By utilising these two question patterns, it was possible to evaluate how well the motives of the potential tourists are in line with the opinions concerning Helsinki. The last section of the questionnaire concerned consumption, lifestyles and values.

Research questions

The process of image-building varies between different target groups. We must know what kind of issues are considered important to perform well in marketing. Traditional marketing activities are not necessarily effective amongst different segments of young people especially when taking into account the cultural differences. Thus, one aim of the study was to produce recommendations for marketing and brand work, having this particular target group – young people – in mind.

From this perspective, the main objective of the survey was to obtain information of how young people in the ten selected countries see Helsinki and what are the main differences and similarities between countries. This kind of research setting is new and unique.


The size of the whole combined data was 4,031 respondents and the sample sizes of different countries varied from 401 to 413. All the respondents had travelled abroad during past year; this was the precondition for being chosen in the sample. In general, respondents travel abroad quite often. About 80% of the respondents travel at least once a year and 40% at least twice. Thus, according to the data, it seems that those who travel, travel quite often.

Young people throughout these data seemed to be interested in other cultures and travelling. They would also be happier if they had more money. Shopping and new experiences were among the main interests. Nevertheless, the results at the other end were somewhat surprising. When looking only at these variables in the context of the whole data, it seems that young people were less environmentally conscious than could have been assumed.  Also differences between the countries were greatest in the case of the statements at the bottom of the list such as the ones concerning flea markets, consumption-centred life, organic products and eating out.

The questions examining the personal values of the respondents turned out to receive somewhat higher mean scores all down the line, compared to the ones concerning consumption. From the viewpoint of values, young people from these ten examined countries appear quite similar. Possibilities to travel and see new places, being successful at studies or at work, contacts with family and friends, as well as the freedom to set their own schedules were evaluated with the highest scores.

General views and statements concerning Helsinki

Respondents were asked whether their general views of Helsinki were positive or negative. The scale was from 1 (very negative) to 5 (very positive). The results show some very interesting results (see Figure 1). Negative views were quite rare; opinions were either neutral of positive.

Interestingly, it seems that neutral and positive opinions were negatively connected to each other. The “hourglass” shape is clearly visible when looking at the results in Figure 1. If the views were positive, the share of neutral views was smaller and vice versa. In general, the amount of neutral views was remarkable. There were probably many respondents who did not have enough information of Helsinki. When someone has inadequate information, giving negative opinions seems unlikely. This might explain why there were very few negative views.

The questionnaire contained one open-ended question. Respondents were asked to write down three words that come to mind when thinking of Helsinki. This was the first question concerning Helsinki and thus the first time the respondents heard that the questionnaire actually was about Helsinki. The answers of Italian, Japanese, South Korean and Dutch respondents were not examined in this article.

The data elicited as a response to this question contains hundreds of different words. Despite this, the most commonly mentioned words stand out clearly. There were also great differences between respondents from different countries. The top five was, however, very stereotypical and very similar regardless of the country. “Cold” was mentioned almost a thousand times, which is a remarkable amount especially considering that part of the respondent countries were not included in the examination in this article. “Finland” came second and “Snow” third. The list continued with “Beautiful”. Snow was mostly mentioned by the British, French and Spanish – all these are countries where snow can be considered somewhat exotic.

Negative associations were rare (although of course “cold” could have been considered negative by some respondents). Most of the comments were either positive or neutral. Amongst Britons, positive comments such as “interesting”, “food”, “nice” and “funny” occurred quite often. French and Germans mentioned “scenery”, “Scandinavia” and “nature” more than others. Spanish respondents mentioned “culture” and “school” a number of times, and in addition to these, “darkness” was mentioned several times. Swedes differed from the rest. Among them “Moomin trolls”, “boat trip” and “shopping” were rather frequent associations. Russians, too, mentioned “shopping”, but also “churches” and “Santa Claus.

Thus, cultural differences were evident here. Also the proximity of Helsinki obviously counts since Russians and Swedes mentioned a larger number of words than respondents from the other countries. They, of course, know more about Finland than, for example, Spanish or French respondents.

In the next part, the respondents were asked to assess 23 statements and say how applicable to Helsinki they found each of these to be. Respondents evaluated the statements using the five point Likert scale. Some of the statements were purposefully quite stereotypical as we wanted to know whether these images often used in marketing are in line with the perceptions.

The results are presented in Figure 2. Bars of different colour indicate the shares of respondents who agreed or disagreed. The shares of those who could not decide are presented in Figure 3. About half of the respondents agreed that Helsinki has a great natural environment, is a safe city, is an unusual destination and is located in an interesting part of the world.

When compared to the open-ended associations, there were only a few images that actually matched; namely “It has a great natural environment” (“beautiful” in Table 1) and “Weather is too cold” (“cold” in Table 1). When the results were examined by looking at mean values, the results were somewhat similar although differences remained more in shade as opposite ends of the 1–5 scale obviously cancelled out each other. Results were thus quite neutral. The mean value of “Great natural environment” was the highest, 3.7, and “It is too small” had the lowest, 2.8.

When approaching the bottom of the figure, the share of respondents who could not decide was remarkably high (see also Figure 3). And also in the case of the most common stereotypes, the shares of respondents without a clear opinion were quite remarkable.

A great share of respondents did not know whether they agreed or disagreed with the statements concerning creativity, design, food culture, shopping, music or nightlife. These were amongst the issues that at least according to the stereotypes make Helsinki’s competitors interesting. Therefore, if Helsinki wants to market itself as creative and design-driven, or to highlight our food culture or shopping possibilities, there is much work to do.

Negative issues are another story. Only 17% of the respondents were of the view that Helsinki is too small (Figure 2). Thus, the relatively small size should not be considered as a disadvantage: 48% of the respondents could not give an opinion on this (Figure 3). What about weather, high prices or location? These are stereotypes that we Finns often associate Helsinki with. To some extent, these stereotypes are in line with reality in light of the data. A little less than half of the respondents feel that Helsinki is too cold or too far, and about one third consider that prices are high. But the results reveal the flip side too: 38% of the respondents did not have an opinion of the weather, 34% of the location and 50% of the prices.

Motives behind choosing a destination

Now we know something about how young people think of the issues often associated with Helsinki. However, this knowledge is not much help if we are unaware of how important they consider these issues to be.

This problem was approached by asking respondents to choose five statements from the same list they were asked to evaluate in relation to Helsinki earlier. It was assumed that the first one they chose was the most important one. When examining these first choices, “good feeling”, “unusual destination”, “a must-see destination”, “interesting part of the world” and “interesting architecture” formed the top five. Now when we compared these to the results presented in Figure 2, we can see that with the exception of “a must-see destination”, all the others were associated with Helsinki relatively well.

When all the five choices were summed together, the list turned out to be slightly different (Figure 4). Most of the choices on top were also associated with Helsinki (Figure 2). Some very interesting observations can be made regarding the issues at the bottom of the list. It could have been thought beforehand that issues concerning nightlife, creative atmosphere, shopping or music would have been more important. However, at least according to these data, young people do not seem to consider these issues important when choosing where to travel.

If nightlife or design is not important for people when they choose the destination, does it matter how they see Helsinki’s nightlife or if they know about Helsinki’s design initiatives? But this is not the matter at issue here. They may enjoy nightlife even if they do not mention it as an important factor. The question is about marketing and which issues to prioritise.

Helsinki vs. competitors

As shown above, the respondents were asked to evaluate their views of Helsinki on a negative-to-positive scale (Figure 1). It turned out that these views were mainly combinations of neutral and positive. The questionnaire contained also another question concerning general opinions and in this case, the respondents were asked to rate Helsinki together with other cities on a 1–5 scale (“not at all interesting” to “very interesting”). The purpose of this question was twofold. First of all, the results would complement the other findings such as those presented in Figure 1. Secondly, the aim was to position Helsinki into a matrix with its competitors. How interesting Helsinki is compared to, say, Copenhagen? Where does Helsinki stand?

The results are presented in Figure 5. Swedish and Russian respondents clearly stand out from the rest. Russian respondents considered Helsinki more often interesting than respondents from the other countries. 65% of Russian respondents stated that Helsinki is interesting whilst amongst the Swedes the share was only 21%.

In general, it seems that here most of the respondents had an opinion. Only 25% of the respondents answered with a “3” (meaning that Helsinki was neither interesting nor uninteresting). This is a considerably lower share than, for instance, in the negative vs. positive evaluation where 40% of the respondents chose the neutral option. Thus, at least one conclusion can be drawn from this result. The positive views of the respondents do not necessarily mean that they consider Helsinki interesting, and vice versa, of course.

And then on top of everything, where does Helsinki stand when its competitors were evaluated using the same scale (Figure 6)? Amsterdam and Berlin were clearly the most interesting destinations. Stockholm, Copenhagen and Oslo came next. According to these results, Helsinki was in same league with St Petersburg whilst Tallinn was behind all the other cities. However, the differences are not substantial, and Copenhagen and Oslo, for example, are not far ahead of Helsinki. Moreover, a point to keep in mind is that the results of Helsinki are somewhat skewed by the fact that the ratings given by the Swedish respondents were markedly different from the assessments they gave to all the other cities.


The aim of the study was to obtain more information on the preferences of young people around the world and to find out what kinds of perceptions they have on Helsinki. The extensive data was analysed thoroughly, but only the most important results could be presented here.

Young people form anything but a uniform group. Lifestyles and motives in terms of touristic behaviour vary a lot and when different nationalities are taken into account, the results is a complex matrix with multitude of preferences. The observed young people, who were 16-25 of age, have of course many things in common. They seem to be interested in other cultures and they enjoy travelling. They want to shop and search for new experiences. They appreciate possibilities to travel and want to be successful at work and studies. In addition to these, traditional values bind people from different cultural backgrounds together. Family, relatives and other important people remain in the centre when values are examined.

When asked about Helsinki, a striking observation was that it was difficult for a substantial share of respondents to give opinions. On the one hand, negative opinions were rare but, on the other hand, neutral opinions were relatively common. It can be assumed that having negative views requires at least a certain degree of knowledge. Interestingly, positive and neutral views were somewhat contrary when examined by country.

Respondents were asked to write down three words that best describe Helsinki. Not surprisingly, the top five was dominated by rather stereotypical images such as “cold” or “snow”. Even in a data of hundreds of different words, negative issues were almost absent. Cultural differences were clearly visible here. The variety of issues mentioned by Russians and Swedes, to whom Helsinki is more familiar, was remarkably greater than with the others.

When asked to evaluate different statements of Helsinki, neutral answers were frequent as well. Quite a remarkable share of the respondents neither agreed nor disagreed with the statements concerning creativity, design, food culture, shopping, music or nightlife. Thus, if Helsinki wants to attract tourists with these, the word must be spread. However, when asked in a separate question pattern, these issues are not necessarily the most important determinants behind the choice of destination. They might have been assumed to have had more weight.  Far more important were the propositions that Helsinki had a “good vibe”, that it is an unusual destination and in an interesting part of the world.

Now what to do with these findings? From the viewpoint of marketing, it is good to know that young people’s impressions of Helsinki are relatively positive, or, to be more precise, they are not negative. The differences between the countries must be taken into account similarly as different lifestyle segments. Same marketing strategies do not work everywhere. And it must be remembered that the positive views do not automatically mean that Helsinki is considered especially interesting. It seems that young people consider other cities – Helsinki’s competitors – more interesting than Helsinki. Interestingly, the scores given to Helsinki by Russian respondents were the highest when respondents from different countries were compared. Russians form an important target group, and in light of these results, this could be the case also in the future.

Pekka Mustonen is Senior Researcher at City of Helsinki Urban Facts.


City of Helsinki (2015) Kansainvälisiä saavutuksia. <>

Mustonen, Pekka (2015) “Young people from ten different countries – what do they think of Helsinki?“ The study report will be published in 2015 by City of Helsinki Urban Facts.

WYSE Travel Conferedation (2013) New Horizons. <>

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