The special importance of the shipping industry for the Åland Islands

Although the people of Åland have long sailed around the Baltic Sea for trade, shipping in the Åland Islands did not start properly until after the end of the Crimean War in 1856.

Charlotta Björklund

The author is a Project Coordinator at the Provincial Government of Åland

Shipbuilding began with relatively simple dockyards. At the end of the 1950s, commercial shipping started to increase, and ferry traffic was opened between Sweden, Åland, and Turunmaa, which is on the Finnish mainland. Today, for example, the shipping company Viking Line has seven vessels operating on the route between Turku, Åland, Sweden, and Estonia.

At the end of 2018, the Åland merchant fleet had 43 vessels, whose gross tonnage was more than 300 GT. In total, the fleet has a gross tonnage of almost 1,098,000 GT.

The shipping industry in Åland has a long history. It has been and continues to be Åland's most important industry. Since it is surrounded by the sea, shipping is a necessary way of moving people and goods between this island province and the Finnish and Swedish mainlands. Heavy traffic is both national and international. Shipping is particularly important for tourism with approximately 1.8 million passengers arriving each year.

The shipping industry is a major economic and employment sector in the Åland Islands. It accounts for about 40% (2007) of the island’s economy and about 11% of employment for Åland residents. In 2014, about 1,060 people living on the island worked in the Åland shipping industry.

International shipping in Åland employs a total of around 6,100 people in and outside Åland. In addition to generating employment, shipping in the Åland Islands also has a positive impact on the Finnish shipbuilding industry. Therefore, the maritime cluster operating in Åland also has beneficial effects beyond the island itself.

Since Åland is part of the EU customs territory and customs union, but not its tax territory, duty-free sales are possible in shipping between Åland and other European Union countries. Tax-free sales are important for the tourism industry and also generate about half of the net revenue of the shipping companies in Åland.

Ankommande kryssningsfartyg i Mariehamns hamn.
The people of the Åland Islands are highly dependent on operational shipping.

The Åland Maritime Cluster

The Åland Maritime Cluster contains similar operations to many other corresponding maritime clusters elsewhere in the world. The three specific features of the Åland Maritime Cluster are:

  1. It is the largest maritime cluster in the Northern Baltic
  2. It has retained an almost pure marine profile
  3. It governs Åland's local economy in a way that is unparalleled in any other maritime cluster.

Other similar maritime clusters across Europe are dominated by land-based operations, such as logistics services rather than the actual shipping. Therefore, unlike the Åland Islands, in many places, port activities play a more important role in the maritime cluster than the shipping companies themselves.

In summary

The people of Åland are, and always have been, heavily dependent on shipping for their welfare, services, and transport. All of these business sectors are tied to ferry traffic in one way or another. The business operations of the Åland Islands, upon which tourism has a major influence, are also almost entirely dependent on the transport that takes place via shipping.

Read more about this topic

The law exempting the province of Åland from VAT and excise legislation (in Swedish)

More about shipping in Åland (In Swedish)