LAPPEENRANTA, Finland: Crowds of people gather in the eastern Finnish town of Imatra on a bridge overlooking the Imatrankoski Rapids, one of the Nordic country’s best-known natural attractions.
At the same time every day, the river’s almost century-old dam is opened and water rushes under the bridge, to the sound of music by Finnish composer Jean Sibelius.
It is a popular attraction especially for Russian tourists. Even Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, visited Imatrankoski in 1772.
But since the end of July, the city of Imatra has started the show by playing the Ukrainian national anthem, in protest against the Russian invasion.
Finland, which shares a 1,300 kilometer (800 mile) eastern border with Russia, is also preparing to limit tourist visas issued to Russians.
“It’s bad for Russians who love Finland,” says Mark Kosykh, a 44-year-old Russian tourist who came to see the rapids with his family.
“But we understand the Finnish government,” he says.
Kosykh points out that there are Russians who don’t like war.
“Not all Russians are for Putin. The government and everyone must understand this.
Also in the nearby town of Lappeenranta, the Ukrainian national anthem is played nightly above its town hall, overlooking shopping malls popular with Russian tourists.
“The objective is to express strong support for Ukraine and to condemn the war of aggression,” Lappeenranta mayor Kimmo Jarva told AFP.
Many Russians visit Lappeenranta to buy clothes and cosmetics, for example, and Russian license plates can be seen on many cars.
But tourism from its eastern neighbor has caused discontent in Finland due to the war in Ukraine.
A poll published last week by Finnish public broadcaster Yle showed that 58% of Finns were in favor of restricting Russian tourist visas.
“In my opinion, they should be very heavily restricted. I see no other way to make Russian politicians think,” says Antero Ahtiainen, 57, from Lappeenranta.
Although he has nothing against individual tourists, Ahtiainen says his relationship with Russians has changed.
Spurred on by growing discontent, Finland’s foreign minister last week presented a plan to limit tourist visas issued to Russians.
The Nordic country remains Russia’s only EU neighbor with no restrictions on tourist visas for Russian citizens.
With flights from Russia to the EU halted, Finland has become a transit country for many Russians seeking to travel further afield in Europe.
“Many saw it as a circumvention of the sanctions regime,” Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto told AFP.
Although the Schengen regime and Finnish law do not allow an outright ban on visas based on nationality, Finland can reduce the number of visas issued based on category, Haavisto noted.
“The tourism category may be limited in terms of the number of visas that can be applied for in a day,” Haavisto said.
Haavisto said he believes the final decision to adopt the plan could be made by the end of the month.
Although many Finns are now resentful of Russian visitors, traditionally people on both sides of the border region have lived in close contact with each other.
“In St. Petersburg, many people have grandpas and grandmas from Finland, like my wife,” Kosykh says and adds that he visits Finland every year.
Russian tourists are also a key source of income for many Finnish border towns.
After Russia lifted Covid travel restrictions on July 15, the number of Russian tourists visiting Finland has steadily increased.
Although the numbers are still well below pre-Covid levels, there were more than 230,000 border crossings in July, down from 125,000 in June.
“Of course, if Russian tourists don’t come here, there will be a loss of revenue for businesses, which is unfortunate,” Jarva says.
But Jarva thinks there is strong support for limiting Russian tourist visas.
“We have to make a choice. We are strongly behind Ukraine.