The Friendly Moose guesthouse was a way to combine Paul's career as a sports coach with his wife Maria's experience in catering, hospitality and management.
“My favourite part of my job, and by far the most rewarding, was the large disability tennis programme that we had set up and developed. I got a huge buzz from helping people of all abilities to discover that they could play tennis and loved seeing them go on to make friends, have fun, get fitter, build confidence and achieve success through tennis,” says Paul.
The idea to relocate to northern Sweden had come to him gradually through repeated winter trips to the region: “We had that strong feeling of wanting to take on another challenge and adventure in life, before it was too late.”
Hoping to apply their experience to an accessible winter tourism business, they looked for a suitable property in summer 2018, and found a riverside house with views over to Finland. Paul says the location is both convenient for the local town and for what the nearby nature has to offer – from fishing under the midnight sun to husky rides.
“We count ourselves very lucky to have found a part of the world where the locals are so friendly and welcoming. We have so many really super friends here, including some who we met and helped us on that very first visit,” he says.
MY SWEDISH BUSINESS:
Daughter Lilly-Fe with an elk. Photo: Private
The business offers a range of activities from sports to seeing the Northern lights and festive visits to Father Christmas, all designed to be accessible for wheelchair users. In summer, spring and autumn, the activities are adapted to the season featuring trips to an elk farm and scenic forest walks. Paul and Maria are directly involved in all aspects from grounds maintenance and cleaning to marketing and working with guests.
“It's a lot of work, but creating the best possible holidays and experiences we can for our guests, especially those who have additional needs, is something we love doing. It's so magical when we get to see these guests enjoying husky sled rides, seeing the northern lights, stroking a moose, meeting our Santa, making a fire in the snowy forest and discovering this fantastic part of Sweden,” he says.
“One other thing I especially love about the days up here, in addition to the fresh air, endless forests and the absence of crowds and traffic is how the seasons are so hugely different and how significantly they impact on the scenery, wildlife, the river and the daily rhythm of life.”
Having cleared the hurdles needed to set up a new business in a new country, the couple were thrown a curveball when the coronavirus pandemic hit, leaving the tourism industry struggling.
The guesthouse has two large wheelchair-accessible apartments on the ground floor, each with two bedrooms. Photo: Private
At the start of March 2020, the business was on track to break even with the bookings made up to then, but global uncertainty around the state of the pandemic and travel restrictions meant many guests cancelled and few have made bookings since then.
The municipality of Övertorneå has had very few confirmed cases of the virus, and Paul says “social distancing is pretty much a natural part of life here”. But given the fast-changing nature of the pandemic and restrictions in place across Europe, this hasn't protected the local tourism industry.
Adapting to the virus has meant accepting accommodation-only bookings (including for guests without a disability or additional needs), and working with a disability travel specialist in Stockholm to turn attention to domestic tourists. The couple have also been flexible regarding refunds and cancellations.
For now, Paul comments: “We will find a way to get through and, like everyone, look forward to a bright future when the worst of the virus is behind us all. While we struggle on business-wise we are thankful to be living in such a beautiful and friendly place.”