The paradoxes of sustainable post-pandemic tourism

Many have highlighted Covid-19 as an opportunity to make tourism more sustainable, but this noble aim is not necessarily reflected in tourism plans across the Nordic Region. Some of the questions facing the industry are if tourism will return to business as usual or if the pandemic has permanently changed the way we travel. How do we ensure that small, local tourism companies continue to thrive and contribute to sustainable growth? And then there is the big paradox: is it at all possible for tourism to grow in a sustainable manner?

Focus on the regional aspects of tourism

The fourth and final online session of Nordregio Forum took place on 3 February. The session gathered more than 400 people for talks and discussions on sustainable tourism development after the pandemic. With Nordregio as the organiser, the event had a natural focus on the regional aspects of tourism.

Anna Karlsdóttir, Senior Research Fellow at Nordregio, introduced interesting facts and statistics about the growth of tourism in the Nordic Region in the last two decades. One example is Flåm in west-Norway, where tourism grew more than 400 per cent between 2009 and 2019. In the same period, most Nordic regions and territories saw an increase in overnight stays, and in Iceland, the number of overnight stays more than doubled in five out of the country’s eight regions. In Suðurnes, the increase was a massive 450 per cent.

An important sector of the economy

”Tourism has become an established sector of the economy across the Nordic countries, both in terms of revenue and employment,” Karlsdóttir said. In 2018, tourism in Denmark, Norway, Finland and Sweden contributed to the economy with an estimated 100-300 billion in local currency in each country and provided 100,000 to 200,000 full-time jobs. In Finland, tourism accounted for 142,000 jobs in 2018, of which 57,000 were outside the most populous urban areas.

Referring to a new Nordregio report, Regional Tourism Satellite Accounts for the Nordic countries, Karlsdóttir stated that while the economic importance of tourism on the national level is well documented, “it would be greatly beneficial to better understand the economic effects of tourism development on the individual Nordic regions.”

The paradox of growth and sustainability

The rapid growth of tourism obviously comes with some concerns. In some popular destinations, congestion and insufficient infrastructure have become a problem, and an unsustainable number of visitors can lead to pressure on natural environments and local communities. At the event, Professor Arvid Viken of the University of Tromsö even posed the question if it is at all possible for tourism to be sustainable.

“Tourism always represents pressure on nature and culture as it simply cannot take place without leaving some sort of a trace,” Viken said. “You could argue that the concept of sustainable tourism is, in a way, an oxymoron. It’s something of a contradiction.”

The question of ownership and local benefits from tourism is a prominent issue in the sustainability debate.

“In fact, tourism is a sector where often, the values are created locally, while most of the profit goes to international investors and the financial sector,” Viken says. He uses Lofoten in Northern Norway as an example. In the 1980s, this rugged and beautiful archipelago was characterised by its small fishing villages and rural cabins, and most tourism companies in the area were small and locally owned.

“Today, the picture is different. Tourism in Lofoten is growth-driven and dominated by national and international hotel chains, commercial experience tourism providers and cruise tourism, bringing up to 2,000 passengers to the local fishing villages, some of which only have 200 inhabitants. It’s no longer just accommodation, it’s a fully-fledged industry.”

Read more about the effects of cruise tourism in Planning for sustainable tourism in the Nordic rural regions – Cruise tourism, the right to roam and other examples of identified challenges in a place-specific context

Decades of visitor management

Despite the often-voiced concerns of overtourism, Viken describes Lofoten as an example of good visitor management. The area has successfully addressed the issue of seasonality and now has tourism all year round. Many sustainable tourism projects have been launched, including the construction of paths, waste management projects, local food projects and several educational offers. As a result, Innovation Norway has certified Lofoten as a sustainable tourist destination.

“However, it’s important to remember that Lofoten is also an example of some of the issues that can be difficult to overcome and must be addressed in all seriousness if we want the future of tourism to be sustainable,” says Viken.

Laying the foundations for the future

But how do municipal and regional tourism strategies in the Nordic Region reflect the importance of moving tourism in a more sustainable direction? This was studied in Planning for sustainable tourism in the Nordic rural regions – Pan-Nordic analysis of Regional Tourism Strategies for Rural Areas, a report which analyses more than 100 tourism plans from different rural areas.

“Our initial observation was the striking difference in the quality of these tourism plans,” says Ágúst Bogason, Research Fellow at Nordregio. “Some consist of only a few paragraphs, while others are described in great detail. And while nine out of ten plans mention sustainability, only half of them incorporate a holistic view of the concept.”

“This is quite strange, especially since sustainable development is a key issue in regional and international policy, not least in the Nordic countries,” Bogason continues. “Also, consumers are now pressing for more sustainable behaviour. It seems quite obvious that tourism should be intensely focused on moving toward sustainable development.”

While there clearly is room for improvement, the researchers identified many good examples of holistic and sustainable tourism plans.

“These greener plans emphasise the importance of destination management, some even by limiting growth and thus reducing the societal and environmental pressures of rapid tourism growth. They include the social, environmental and economic aspects of sustainability, within and outside the tourism sector, and they try to balance these three dimensions in a long-term sustainable perspective.”

Finally, Bogason highlights an important common feature of the ’greener’ tourism plans.

“85 per cent of these holistic and sustainable tourism strategies were created in a broad participatory process, involving tourism stakeholders as well as actors from outside the industry. There seems to be a clear trend: the broader the involvement, the more sustainable the strategy. This is an important lesson for future tourism planning.”

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