Åland – big fun on small islands
The autonomous Finnish province of Åland is located in the Baltic Sea, at the southern end of the Gulf of Bothnia between mainland Finland and Sweden. This unique group of islands has its own taxation system, its own postage stamps, its own flag and it has Swedish as its only official language.
The Åland archipelago consists of more than 6,500 islands. Most of these are just small rocky islets or windswept outcrops, but more than 60 are inhabited. Picturesque red wooden houses and green meadows speckled with sheep and cows are part of a landscape that is never far from the sea.
For travellers, the Åland islands offer activities from leisurely days around the small-town capital Mariehamn to adventurous island-hopping in the picturesque archipelago. It’s easy to get from one island to another via the many bridges and ferries, and Åland’s roads are perfect for a family cycling holiday.
Self-governing powers granted in 1921
Even though Finland has two official languages, Åland is the only monolingual region of Finland, with the majority of the 25,000 residents speaking only Swedish. The people on Åland primarily make their living from tourism, maritime occupations and banking.
Settled by the Vikings in the early-Middle Ages, the Åland islands were ceded by the Swedish Empire to Russia, along with Finland, in 1809. When Finland gained its independence from Russia in 1917, the Åland residents actually wanted to re-join Sweden. The League of Nations took a different view, however, resolving in 1921 that Åland would remain part of Finland but would be granted broad self-governing powers.
Åland’s autonomous status means that the island group has its own government, language and cultural policy. Since 1922, Åland has had its own parliament as well as a representative in the Finnish national parliament. Finnish legislation applies in matters concerning foreign policy, civil and criminal law, customs and monetary policy.
Much like the Canary Islands and Channel Islands, Åland is also a separate tax area. This is particularly advantageous for the cruise ships and ferries travelling between Sweden and Finland, because a stop in Åland means they can sell duty-free alcohol on board.
Home region right
After the end of the Crimean War in 1856, Åland was declared a demilitarised zone. Ever since then, troops have only been present on the islands during the First and Second World War. Åland residents are exempt from Finnish military service.
Åland’s ‘home region right’ sets out in law who may be considered a resident of Åland. It states that a person must have at least one parent from Åland or must have lived in Åland for a certain length of time. Anyone who moves away from Åland for a significant period loses their home region right.
So, are Ålanders really Finns? Yes, they are, but they proudly carry EU passports with ‘Suomi-Finland-Åland’ on the cover, rather than the usual ‘Suomi-Finland’ designation