Åland comprises Fasta Åland on which 90% of the population resides and a further 6,500 skerries and islands to its east. Fasta Åland is separated from the coast of Sweden by 38 kilometres of open water to the west. In the east, the Åland archipelago is contiguous with the Finnish Archipelago Sea. Åland's only land border is located on the uninhabited skerry of Märket, which it shares with Sweden.
Åland's autonomous status means that those provincial powers normally exercised by representatives of the central Finnish government are largely exercised by its own government.
The Åland Islands occupy a position of strategic importance, as they command one of the entrances to the port of Stockholm, as well as the approaches to the Gulf of Bothnia, in addition to being situated near the Gulf of Finland.
The Åland archipelago includes nearly three hundred habitable islands, of which about eighty are inhabited; the remainder are merely some 6,200 skerries and desolate rocks. The archipelago is connected to Åboland archipelago in the east (Finnish: Turunmaan saaristo, Swedish: Åbolands skärgård)—the archipelago adjacent to the southwest coast of Finland. Together they form the Archipelago Sea. To West from Åland is Sea of Åland and to North the Bothnian Sea.
The surface of the islands is generally rocky and the soil thin due to glacial stripping at the end of the most recent ice age. The islands also contain many meadows that are home to many different kinds of insects, such as the Glanville fritillary butterfly. There are several harbours.
The islands' landmass occupies a total area of 1,527 square kilometres (590 sq mi). Ninety percent of the population live on Fasta Åland, which is also the site of the capital town of Mariehamn. Fasta Åland is the largest island in the archipelago. Its area is difficult to estimate due to its irregular shape and coastline, but estimates range from 740 square kilometres to 879 square kilometres to over 1,010 square kilometres, depending on what is included or excluded.
During the Åland crisis, the parties sought support from different maps of the islands. On the Swedish map, the most densely populated main island dominated, and many skerries were left out. On the Finnish map, many smaller islands or skerries were, for technical reasons, given a slightly exaggerated size. The Swedish map made the islands appear to be closer to the mainland of Sweden than to Finland; the Finnish map stressed the continuity of the archipelago between the main island and mainland Finland, while a greater gap appeared between the islands and the archipelago on the Swedish side. One consequence is the often repeated number of "over 6,000" skerries that was given authority by the outcome of the arbitration.
Åland has a humid continental climate that is influenced by its maritime position, especially in summer. While summers are cooler than on both the Swedish and Finnish mainland, winters see little difference to the adjacent parts of Sweden and are only narrowly milder than in mainland Finland.
Åland's economy is heavily dominated by shipping, trade and tourism. Shipping represents about 40% of the economy, with several international carriers owned and operated off Åland. Most companies aside from shipping are small, with fewer than ten employees. Farming and fishing are important in combination with the food industry. A few high-profile technology companies contribute to a prosperous economy. Wind power is rapidly developing, aiming at reversing the direction in the cables to the mainland in coming years. In December 2011 wind power accounted for 31.48% of Åland's total electricity usage.
The main ports are Mariehamn (south), Berghamn (west) and Långnäs on the eastern shore of the Main Island.
Mariehamn was the base for the last large oceanic commercial sailing ships in the world. Their final tasks were bringing Australian wheat to Great Britain, on which Åland shipowner Gustaf Erikson kept going until after WW2, 1947 being his last year. The ships latterly made only one round-trip from South Australia to Britain per year, (the grain race), after each marathon voyage going back to Mariehamn to lay up for a few months. The ship Pommern, now a museum in Mariehamn, was one of these last vessels.
The abolition of tax-free sales on ferry boats travelling between destinations within the European Union made Finland demand an exception for the Åland Islands on the European Union value added tax rules. The exception allows for maintained tax-free sales on the ferries between Sweden and Finland (provided they stop at Mariehamn or Långnäs) and at the airport, but has also made Åland a different tax-zone, meaning that tariffs must be levied on goods brought to the islands.
Unemployment was 3.9% in January 2014
The Finnish State collects taxes, duties and fees also in Åland. In return, the Finnish Government places a sum of money at the disposal of the Åland Parliament. The sum is 0.45% of total Government income, excluding Government loans. If the sum paid to the Finnish state exceedes 0.5%, then any amount above that will go back to the Parliament of Åland as "diligence money". In 2010, the amount of taxes paid by Åland Islanders was 0.65% of the total taxes paid in Finland.
According to Eurostat, in 2006 Åland was the 20th wealthiest of the EU's 268 regions, and the wealthiest in Finland, with a GDP per inhabitant 47% above the EU mean.
While the official currency is the Euro, the Swedish krona is unofficially accepted by most businesses in Åland.
Most inhabitants speak Swedish (the sole official language) as their first language: 90.2% in 2009, while 5.0% spoke Finnish. The language of instruction in publicly financed schools is Swedish (In the rest of Finland, bilingual municipalities provide schooling both in Finnish and in Swedish). (See Åland Swedish for information about the dialect.)
The issue of the ethnicity of the Ålanders, and the correct linguistic classification of their language, remains somewhat sensitive and controversial. They may be considered either ethnic Swedes or Swedish-speaking Finns, but their language is closer to the Uppländska dialect of Sweden than to Finland Swedish. See Languages of Sweden.
Regional citizenship or the right of domicile (hembygdsrätt) is a prerequisite for voting, standing as a candidate for the Legislative Assembly, or owning and holding real estate situated in unplanned areas of Åland.
The majority of the population, 75.9%, belongs to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland. The Åland islands contain Finland's oldest Christian churches, including St. Olaf's Church, Jomala, which dating from the late 13th century is likely to be the oldest in Finland. The Åland Islands' largest church is the Church of St. George in Sund, dating from shortly after.
Åland Stags are the islands' only Rugby Union club.