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Is overtourism a threat to the Nordics, or can the sector become sustainable?

Is overtourism a threat to the Nordics, or can the sector become sustainable?

| Text and photo: Björn Lindahl

We have all seen the pictures of the queue to get to the top of Mount Everest, gigantic cruise ships docking in Venice and anti-tourist protests in Barcelona. Mass tourism has taken a step towards becoming “overtourism”.

The definition of overtourism is when conflicts arise between local populations and visitors to a tourist destination due to perceived overcrowding. The Nordic countries enjoy more geographical space than most other countries. However, the “allemannsretten” – the right to roam – means tourists can go wherever they like, resulting in damage to nature or to the tourists themselves. 

Social media and the selfie culture means visits are concentrated to fewer places. The pop star Justin Bieber recorded a video of himself as he went for a dip in the Icelandic valley of Fjaðrárgljúfur in 2015. He has more than 110 million followers on Instagram, many of whom wanted to visit the same spot. As a result, the valley had to be closed to visitors because of the damage tourists did to the nature. It was only reopened on 1 June this year. 

A flying shame

As tourism creates more problems, the industry also faces mounting criticism due to CO2 emissions created by air travel in particular. But what is worse – the rare, long-haul trips people take a few times in their lives, or the frequent short-haul flights between Oslo and Copenhagen, Stockholm and Helsinki? 

The notion of “flight shame” is now spreading across all of the Nordic region. Iceland has used its Presidency of the Nordic Council of Ministers to focus on sustainable tourism. The country’s tourism industry has grown a lot in the past six years. 2.3 million tourists visited the island in 2017 – seven times the population.  

When low-cost airline WOW Air folded in March this year, Iceland got some space to think. The airline had been carrying a large proportion of the tourists arriving in Iceland up until then. Now, Icelandic authorities want to organise tourism in a better way.

The Nordic Labour Journal takes a look at the impact tourism has on Iceland and on the two autonomous areas of Åland and the Faroe Islands. Is there a real will to create a more sustainable tourism industry, or are environmental arguments being used to tempt more tourists to visit?

Strong growth

So far, tourism has enjoyed stronger growth than most other sectors. The statistics are not quite up to date, but 2017 was an unusually good year for the EU tourism industry. It grew by 8% on 2016. 538 million international tourists visited an EU country in that year, which is 40% of the world total. Tourism now represents 10% of the EU’s GDP, and employs 9% of the total EU workforce.

Globally, the Chinese spend the most money on tourism – 258 billion US dollars in 2017 according to the World Tourism Organisation. The USA is in second place, but spends less than half – 135 billion US dollars. Germany is number three with 84 billion, the UK with 63 billion and France with 41 billion.

Is there a limit for how many tourists Europe can accommodate? In 1950 there were 25 million foreign overnighters in European countries. That number had risen to 1.2 billion by 2016.

China plays an ever greater role for tourism in the Nordic region too. 356 000 Chinese tourists visited Finland in 2016, a 35% increase. The number of Chinese tourists passing through Keflavik airport in Iceland has risen five-fold in four years. 

So how does it look in the Nordic region? The biggest countries had the greatest number of tourists in 2016:

Denmark 11 million 6 billion euro 6%
Finland 3 million 2 billion euro 6%
Iceland 2 million 2 billion euro 36%
Norway 6 million - 11%
Sweden 7 million 11 billion euro 13%

Source: European Union Tourism Trends. The figure for income for Norway is lacking.

Tourism of course does not only give income. The inhabitants of a country also spends a lot of money in other countries. In 2016 the Sedes spent 13 billion euro, the Danish 8 billion euro and the Finns 5 billion euro on tourist travelling abroad. 

89% of Finns went on holiday either domestically or abroad in 2016. That is the highest number in all of Europe. 28% took a staycation, 5% went abroad while 56% did both. 

Sweden is in second place with 82% and Denmark is third with 80% of the population. Half of vacationing Danes – 40 percentage points – only went abroad on holiday. Norway and Iceland are not part of this EU statistic.

OECD statistics for how big a part of a country’s GDP tourism represents, show Spain in the lead in 2015, with nearly 11%. 

  • Iceland was 11th, with 4.6%
  • Norway was 19th, with 3.2%
  • Sweden was 23rd, with 2.8%
  • Finland was 27th, with 2.5%

Denmark is at the bottom of the 34 OECD countries when it comes to tourism’s share of GDP, with only 1.7%, according to the World Tourism Organization.

Just how big an impact tourism has, depends on how you measure it. For the environment, it is large numer of tourists that matters, but for a small country or an autonomous area, the number of tourists per capita is important. And in certain cases, for instance in Åland, the statistics do not reflect reality because most of the tourists hardly set foot on the island.

The numbers should be treated with some caution, because of fluctuations between local currencies and US dollars. There have also been some changes since the numbers were published. Iceland’s big tourism boom reached its zenith in 2018.
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