A JOURNEY 50 YEARS BACK
History of the Kvarken Council
The Kvarken Council as an organization was formed in 1972. But the quark region has a history of cross-border cooperation that extends much further back than that. Take part in an exciting look back at the history of the Kvarken region.
The Kvarken Region and Its History
The narrowest part of the Gulf of Bothnia is called the Kvarken Strait. The distance from the Finnish coast to the Swedish coast is about 80 km and only about 25 km between the outermost islands. The Kvarken divides the Bothnian Bay in the north from the Bothnian Sea in the south and forms a shallow underwater threshold in the Gulf of Bothnia. The Kvarken’s deepest spot is only about 25 meters.
On the Finnish side of the Kvarken, there is a large archipelago with numerous islands, many of them with permanent inhabitants. The coastline and shores are shallow, and the archipelago’s scenery changes rapidly due to a land uplift phenomenon of almost one centimeter per year. The Ostrobothnian mainland is low and characterized by small rivers and fertile soil. On the Swedish side of the Kvarken, the archipelago is smaller in size and the shores are steeper. The archipelago differs from that in Finland, especially in the southern part of Västerbotten and in Västernorrland with the High Coast.
The Kvarken region
The Kvarken region consists of the counties of Ostrobothnia, Southern Ostrobothnia and Central Ostrobothnia in Finland and the regions of Västerbotten and Västernorrland in Sweden.
The Ostrobothnian counties, with 40 municipalities in the Province of Western Finland, have 440,000 inhabitants. More than 100,000 of these have Swedish as their native language, and many of the remaining 330,000 Finnish-speaking persons also know Swedish.
The Swedish part of the cross-border region consists of a total of approximately 520,000 inhabitants in Västerbotten and Västernorrland.
The Kvarken region is sparsely populated, especially in Västerbotten where the population is concentrated to the coastal areas, while inhabitation in the inland and mountainous regions is quite sparse.
The Kvarken Strait is the narrowest part of the Gulf of Bothnia, and for thousands of years the strait has functioned as a communication link that has united Ostrobothnia (Österbotten) and Västerbotten. Finland was also a part of the Swedish Empire until 1809. Between the 12th and 15th centuries, the northern parts of the Kingdom of Sweden were governed from the Korsholm Castle in Ostrobothnia.
The people living on the islands of Björkö on the Finnish side and Holmön on the Swedish side have transported mail and passengers by boat over the Kvarken Strait for centuries, thus forming a predecessor for the modern-day Kvarken traffic and cooperation. A map from 1539 by Olaus Magnus shows how the Kvarken was crossed over the ice during wintertime.
The first steamships began operating in the Gulf of Bothnia and Kvarken Strait in the 1830’s. The traffic became more regular in the first half of the 20th century. The first car ferry began operating in the Kvarken Strait in 1958, and there has been regular year-round traffic since 1972.
The Kvarken Council was founded in 1972 during the first Kvarken Conference in Vaasa, Finland, at the initiative of the Nordic friendship and cooperation associations Pohjola-Norden in Finland and Föreningen Norden in Sweden. The first years were dedicated to the formation of the organization and the anchoring of the cooperation with municipalities, authorities, and organizations.
In 1979, the Kvarken Council became a part of the official Nordic border-regional cooperation, with financial support from the Nordic Council of Ministers and its Nordic Senior Official’s Committee for Regional Policy (NÄRP).
The Kvarken Council’s operations was administered by a non-profit association since 2008. The Council became reorganized into a European Grouping of Territorial Cooperation (EGTC) in the beginning of 2021. The Finnish and Swedish governments approved the establishment of this new form of cooperation in November 2020.
Map: Olaus Magnus, Carta Marina Scandinavia, 1539 (excerpt)
History of Maritime Traffic in the Region
Maritime Traffic Across the Kvarken
The first steamboat to cross the Kvarken was the Swedish steamer Norrland, which began operating in the region in 1837 and did several trips between Umeå and Vaasa in the following years. Norrland was followed by other ships that carried out more or less regular traffic between cities on both sides of the Kvarken. After the First World War, a Swedish company started regular traffic during the summer months from Vaasa to Umeå with the steamer Turisten. However, this activity ceased at the Second World War’s outbreak.
A small steamer called Pörtö began operating between Vaasa and Umeå in 1947. The steamer was bought in 1948 by the newly-founded shipping company Varustamo Oy Vaasa–Uumaja, which continued running the route after renaming the ship Turisten. Turisten was followed by a couple of other small steamers, Korsholm and Korsholm II.
Other shipping companies also operated in the Kvarken Strait at the same time: Wasa Line with Wasa and Sveabolaget with Ragne, among other ships, running a line from Stockholm and Sundsvall to Vaasa. Traffic increased throughout the years, and the first ship to transport cars between Vaasa and Umeå began operating in 1958. This was the “car-ferry” Korsholm III, and transports were increased the following year with Örnen, which operated between Vaasa and Örnsköldsvik.
Less than 20,000 passengers travelled annually across the Kvarken in the 1950’s. In the 1960’s, this figure rose to circa 30,000 in the beginning of the decade and to circa 80,000 in 1965.
Ships operated also from Kokkola to Skellefteå in the early 1960’s. This line was run by Rederi Ab Bottenviken shipping company with Bothnia and later by Rauanheimo shipping company with Coccolita and Oulutar.
Ferries and Winter Traffic
The first actual car-ferry, Wasa Express, began operating the route between Vaasa and Umeå in 1964. It was complemented by other similar ferries: Botnia Express, Polar Express, and Fenno Express. The winter of 1972 was the first winter when a ferry managed to travel between Vaasa and Umeå, marking the beginning of year-round maritime traffic in the region. This ferry was Scania Express. Traffic was also established between Vaasa and Sundsvall and between Sundsvall and Pori, although the latter connection was short-lived. Jakob Lines shipping company began a line between Jakobstad and Skellefteå, and also later from Kokkola, in 1969. The company had one ferry, Nordek, and two passenger ships, Bore Nord and Borea.
Car traffic and tourism increased in the 1970’s, and larger ferries were needed: the new Wasa Express and Botnia Express. Ferries continued to grow in size in the 1980’s: Wasa Star, Fennia, Sally Express, among others. Wasa King, Wasa Queen and Silja Festival entered the line in the 1990’s.
Traffic in the Kvarken increased from around 50,000 passengers in the early 1960’s to 400,000–650,000 passengers in the 1970’s. This number grew to 600,000–1,150,000 passengers during the 1980’s.
Over one million passengers crossed the Kvarken in the early 1990’s, but this figure sank to circa 800,000 during the following years and continued to decrease drastically to 500,000 in 1998 and 300,000 in 1999.
The shipping company Varustamo Oy Vaasa–Uumaja changed owners and names several times during this period. The owners included Enso–Gutzeit, Rederi Ab Sally, and EffJohn/Silja Line and they operated under the names Vaasanlaivat–Vasabåtarna, Wasa Line, and eventually Silja Line. A route also ran between Kaskinen and Gävle in the 1980’s. It was initially operated by Folkline with the ferry Folkliner and later by KG-Line with Scandinavia. Traffic on this route ceased in 1989. KG-Line’s Scandinavia ran a short time also between Vaasa and Umeå in competition with Vaasanlaivat–Vasabåtarna. However, Vaasanlaivat–Vasabåtarna later purchased the ferry and renamed it Fenno Star.
Several new traffic concepts with ferries and catamarans were proposed in the late 1990’s. However, none of these were carried out.
After tax free
The creation of a joint shipping company saved the ferry traffic
Tax-free sales aboard ships in the Kvarken Strait were abolished in June 1999, whereafter the profitability of operating in the strait seriously deteriorated. Traffic across the Kvarken had been one of the most profitable lines in the early 1990’s. However, in 2000, Silja Line announced its decision to cease operating in the Kvarken due to unprofitability. Kvarken traffic had been sustained with social support since September 1999.
Passenger traffic was revived in May 2001 by the shipping companies RG Line with Casino Express (formerly Silja Line’s Fennia) and Botnia Link with Transparaden. Botnia Link had previously shipped freight between Vaasa and Härnösand since 2000 and between Vaasa and Umeå since 2001. After Botnia Link ceased operating the route in November 2002, only RG Line remained.
RG Line replaced Casino Express with RG1 in the summer 2005.
The shipping company declared bankruptcy in late 2011. After this, passenger and freight transports were temporarily operated by the company’s bankruptcy estate.
In 2012, the city of Vaasa and municipality of Umeå decided to establish a joint shipping company, NLC Ferry, to take over traffic in the Kvarken. The newly-founded company bought a ferry, MS Wasa Express, which had already previously operated in the route between Vaasa to Umeå. The new ferry arrived in Vaasa in November 2012 and underwent renovations. NLC Ferry took over traffic in the Kvarken on January 1st, 2013. The company now operates under the name Wasaline.
A new era
Wasaline will launch a completely new ship, m/s Aurora Botnia, to operate between Vaasa and Umeå in the beginning of May 2021. The commission of this new ferry was the result of intensive work to develop a new traffic concept in the Kvarken region. Thanks to financing via the EU’s “Motorways of the Sea” programme, the Kvarken region and its main stakeholders – the city of Vaasa, municipality of Umeå, the Kvarken Council, and the shipping company NLC Ferry – produced a new concept in the “Midway Alignment of the Bothnian Corridor” project, with the new ferry as the most important measure. The city of Vaasa and municipality of Umeå founded a separate company, Kvarken Link Ltd, for the procurement of this new ferry. The company signed a construction agreement for the new ferry with Rauma Marine Constructions in March 2019. M/s Aurora Botnia was floated out on September 11th,2020. The ferry began operating between Vaasa and Umeå in August 2021.
One of the Kvarken Council’s objectives has been to find a long-term solution for the Kvarken traffic, i.e. an environmentally friendly ferry that can operate in challenging ice conditions, thus securing the region’s maritime traffic in the long run. Read more about the stages of this work in the following report: TRIBORDER