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TOURISM

Are Norway’s top attractions at risk of over-tourism?

Norway's tourism industry is showing signs of recovery following the pandemic. However, as international visitors return to tourist hotspots, the country is again debating the pros and cons of mass tourism.

Pictured is Pulpit Rock in Norway.
The Local Norway takes a look at whether Norway has an over-tourism problem. Pictured is Pulpit Rock. Photo by Jordi Vich Navarro on Unsplash

Nationwide lockdowns hit Norway’s vibrant tourism industry hard in 2020 and 2021. However, it seems that the effects of Covid-19 on Norwegian tourism are likely to be short-lived. 

According to recent data published by Telenor, the national mobility level (that is, the movement pattern in society) is already at 90 percent of what it was before the pandemic broke out. 

This pattern is also visible when it comes to foreign visitor figures at Norway’s most famous tourist locations – Pulpit Rock/Preikestolen (+68 percent this year compared to 2021), Geiranger (+448 percent), Træna (+389 percent), Trolltunga (+68 percent), and Nordkapp (+301 percent), among others. 

Pulpit Rock and challenges faced by locals

Pulpit Rock is one of the most well-known natural attractions in Norway. Situated 604 meters above the majestic Lysefjord, it offers visitors an awe-inspiring mountain trek. In 2019, the site registered its highest number of visitors ever recorded.

However, the attraction’s popularity has downsides – tourist safety concerns, capacity challenges, trail attrition, and littering. 

In July of this year, the national broadcaster (NRK) once again reported that roads in the area were heavily congested, leading to security issues and multiple roadside assistance interventions. 

Measures to tackle the issues – including limiting the number of tour buses allowed at the site’s parking lot – have been introduced even before the pandemic started to spread the number of visiting hikers across the day, but it seems that some challenges persist.

Ronny Brunvollhead of Visit Svalbard and a veteran tourism industry expert, told The Local that financing is critical in finding the correct answers to peak-season challenges.

“The challenge is how to spread tourism over time, cover the costs of externalities, and finance the adaptation and construction of roads and toilets. In part, this is addressed by Norway’s new national strategy.

“But also locally, there are good examples. When it comes to Lysefjord and Preikestolen, they tried not to limit the number of visitors but to make the footprint more sustainable. So, it’s possible, but adequate solutions need financing. Some on a local level, others on a national level,” Brunvoll pointed out.

Geiranger and Longyearbyen – cruise ship conundrum 

Norway’s fjords are a popular cruise destination. Pre-Covid, cruise ships contributed to unprecedented levels of tourism in the country, with record development in cruise-related tourism – seven consecutive years of growth up until 2019 – and a record number of cruise passengers. 

For the cruise season of 2019, around 2,000 cruise ships carried 850,000 cruise passengers along with a record 3.6 million of day tourists to Norwegian ports, according to Innovation Norway figures.

Popular cruise destinations such as Geiranger and Longyearbyen have been struggling to keep up with highly concentrated cruise tourism. 

Telenor’s data for 2022 shows that Geiranger has experienced the most significant increase in the proportion of visitors from abroad on a national level – an increase of 448 percent compared to last year.

“The issue is that, at some locations in Norway, during some periods of the year, there are mass tourism tendencies. Still, I don’t think Norway has a mass tourism problem. For example, a cruise ship bringing 4,000-5,000 visitors to Longyearbyen is challenging. Popular destinations like Lofoten also have 5-6 weeks of high season with a similar tendency. But that is just for a part of the year. When it comes to the rest of the year, the problem becomes too few tourists,” Brunvoll said.

“Cruise ship tourism has to be better regulated. It could be a resource for Norway’s tourism, but it has to be controlled and appropriate to local facilities. When it comes to Svalbard, we said that facilities don’t support such ships, and that will be solved. Authorities proposed a maximum number of 750 people (crew and passengers) so that it can match the destination. Such an approach should be implemented all over Norway so that we can have solutions that are a better fit for communities,” he added.

New tourism strategy

In 2020, the Ministry of Trade, Industry, and Fisheries commissioned Innovation Norway to develop a general strategy for the development of Norwegian tourism. 

Roughly a year later, the National Tourism Strategy 2030 – aimed at creating year-round employment and promoting sustainable development – was published. 

Haaken Christensen, Senior Adviser for Sustainable and Nature Tourism at Innovation Norway, told The Local that all of Norway’s tourism efforts are based on sustainability principles.

“The new strategy is based on principles of sustainable tourism. We’re spending our money wisely while trying to lead tourism in the right direction and avoiding over-tourism so that vulnerable local destinations are better prepared. 

“We have a sustainability certification system a few years in the running, and more and more destinations are going for it. That leads to a strategic shift toward sustainability. Of course, now we have interesting discussions on how to prepare our nature for increased traffic on trails, parking lots, gravel roads in the mountains… That will feed into the political discussion that is going on at the moment. 

“We’re trying to be ahead of developments and trends so that we are prepared when things and trends change and new destinations become popular. We’re trying to have tools in place to steer tourism in a sustainable manner,” Christensen pointed out. 

Is there enough political will to tackle key issues?

However, while Norway has been a trailblazer in promoting sustainable tourism over the years, the country has faced a lack of political will when tackling some of the industry-specific issues.

The new strategy also points to this problem: 

“There has been no political will to accommodate the industry’s desire to improve management capability at destinations. Cooperation between public and private stakeholders must be reinforced during a time of such rapid growth. As a result, tourism in Norway has experienced clear growing pains over the last few years… This is particularly true of the handling of volume growth at iconic natural attractions, in harbours welcoming lots of cruise arrivals or charming districts visited by lots of people.” – National Tourism Strategy 2030, p10.

Brunvoll also points to the importance of mobilising political will behind the strategy.

“The new strategy for tourism, developed in cooperation with tourism organisations, regional and local communities, and tourism businesses, sets forward a good direction, sustainability-wise. However, political will and effort need to be put into it. Without that, nothing will happen. The new government officially declared that it would look into the strategy and start working on seeing tourism as a proper business. This has been stated as a priority, and in writing, so that is positive,” he noted.

However, as Norwegian tourism is still recovering from the industry-wide shockwaves generated by the pandemic, finding a middle way between prioritising business recovery and upholding sustainability principles could be demanding.

Ingunn Sørnes, Special Adviser for Tourism at Innovation Norway, sees a certain level of risk in this area.

“The tourism industry has been through the COVID pandemic and is – of course – eager to get on their feet again. This could lead, maybe, to some disregard for principles that businesses previously valued. To some extent, it is hard to be based on values when it comes down to income,” Sørnes stated.

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TRAIN TRAVEL

Yes, train travel across Europe is far better than flying – even with kids

Hoping to do his bit for the planet, perhaps save some money and avoid spending any time in airports, The Local's Ben McPartland decided to travel 2,000km with his family across Europe by train - not plane. Here's how he got on on and would he recommend it?

Yes, train travel across Europe is far better than flying - even with kids

Summer 2022 has seen the return of people travelling across Europe en masse whether for holidays or to see family, or both.

But it’s also seen chaos in airports, airline strikes and more questions than ever about whether we should be flying at all as Europe bakes under consecutive heatwaves caused by the climate crisis.

But are there really viable alternatives to travelling 2,000 km across Europe in a short space of time – with young kids?

The predicament

We needed to get from Paris to Portugal, or to be more precise the western edge of the Algarve in southern Portugal, for a week-long family holiday.

We didn’t have that much time to spend travelling there and back so the dilemma was how could we get there, fairly quickly?

“We” in this case being a family of four including two children aged 5 and 7, one fairly easygoing mum and a dad (me) who increasingly comes out in a rash when he goes near an airport.

Normally we’d have flown – as we did when we went to the same region of Portugal in October – but the stories of airport chaos, delays, cancellations, strikes and never-ending queues around Europe at the start of the summer made the prospect of taking the plane far less appealing.

Then throw in the climate crisis and the growing feeling that we, as a family, need to make an effort for the cause.

So the thought of flying, during what forecasters say was one of the hottest Julys on record in Europe and as rivers dried up and wildfires burn, just didn’t feel like an acceptable option – to me anyway – when there are alternatives.

There was the option of driving from France to Portugal, as many French and Portuguese nationals living in France do every summer. But driving nearly 2,000 km there and back for just a week’s holiday with two kids strapped in the back for hours on end would have been asking for trouble – either a breakdown or lots of meltdowns.

So that left taking the train. But would it be viable?  Would something go wrong as my colleague Richard Orange had warned on his own rail trip across Europe with kids this summer?

READ ALSO: What I learned taking the train through Europe with two kids

Planning the route

With the help of some really knowledgeable European rail experts like Jon Worth and information from the excellent The Man in Seat Sixty-One website we looked at the various rail routes through France and Spain to southern Portugal.

One problem was the line from southern Spain to the Algarve no longer runs which meant the best we could do was get to Seville and then hire a car.

At one point the best option looked like a night train (fairly cheap with a whole cabin reserved for the family) down to the Pyrenees (Latour-de-Carol) and then a local train to Barcelona before onwards travel to Portugal.

But in the end we settled on the direct train from Paris to Barcelona, spend the night in the Catalan city before taking the train the next day to Seville and picking up the car.

READ ALSO 6 European cities less than 7 hours from Paris by train

It would be mean Paris to Portugal in two days – or to be precise 7 hours to Barcelona, one night in a hotel, before a five-and-half-hour train journey to Seville and a three-hour car journey. It was the quickest way without flying, as far as we could see.

We were about to book the tickets when friend who was travelling by rail through Europe mentioned the Interrail option.

I did Interrailing as an 18-year- old and it was a great way to spend a month travelling around Europe (and Morocco) but had never thought it could be an option for a quickish trip to Portugal and back.

But Interrail has changed a bit since 1996 and indeed since 1972 when it was first launched for under 21s.

Now it offers passes that can be used for 4, 5 or 7 days a month – perfect for travel to a few destinations in a short space of time.

And, this was the clincher – Interrail passes for under 11s are free if they are with an adult.

Well almost free, because in certain countries like France and Spain you still need to pay for seat reservations for anyone travelling.

But the cost of the passes for two adults, plus seat reservations were cheaper than just booking direct trains and much cheaper than flying (more on costs below).

The high-speed train from Barcelona to Seville. Photo: The Local

The Upsides

Let’s start with not having to wake up at 4am and arrive at the train station three hours before the train leaves just to check in a bag and then spend the next three hours queuing in various lines – bags, passport, security, boarding etc..

We arrived at Gare de Lyon around 30 minutes before the train left and boarded without queuing and the train departed on time.

Compare this with having to get a taxi or the RER train to Charles de Gaulle airport and then still find yourself in Paris three hours later as you queue to board. (I know this is not always the case but this summer the advice was to arrive three hours before your flight to check in bags.)

Plus there was no luggage limits on the train and no having to empty your bags at security because you left an old roll-on deodorant at the bottom of your bag.

Although rail stations in Spain do have airport style x-ray machines to check all luggage, they were very rapid and didn’t result in any long queues.

Add to this comfortable seats with leg room, a bar you can walk to and spend hours watching the beautiful French and Spanish landscape whizz by.

You arrive in the centre of town – in our case Barcelona – so there’s no need to get public transport or taxis to and from out of town airports. 

Spending a night in Barcelona was a great way to break the journey – albeit a bit expensive (see below).

And it all ran pretty much on time. Over five train journeys in four days we had 15 minutes of delay. Spain’s high-speed trains were fantastic.

To sum it up: when flying your holiday only really begins when you arrive at your final destination because these days the day spent travelling is one big headache, but with the train the holiday begins as soon as you leave the station.

It’s just far, far more relaxing.

heading back to Barcelona Sants station after a night in the Catalan capital. Photo: The Local.

The Downsides

But what about the kids, you say?

Yep this can be an issue. Travelling for 7 hours on a train is not easy with two young kids but if you come prepared and can think of 75 different ways to occupy them from drawing and playing cards to I-spy and “count my freckles slowly” then it’s possible the journey will be tantrum free. (Playing hide and seek on a train with 12 carriages isn’t advisable.)

And kids adapt, so the following day’s five and half hour journey from Barcelona to Seville was a breeze because they settled into the pace of life and by that point had worked out the code to get into my mobile phone.

One complaint was how long the TGV train took to get along the southern French coast. Does it really need to stop at Nimes, Montpellier, Beziers, Agde, Sete and Perpignan? Can’t local trains serve these stations and the TGV just head straight to Spain?

Another little gripe was the train food. Whilst buffet cars on SNCF and Renfe trains are great for a coffee or a beer they don’t really offer a selection of healthy meals, so you need to come prepared. We weren’t and spent a lot of money on crap food and drink during the trips.

But if you know this in advance you can bring whatever you like onto the train, with no nonsense about 100ml limits on liquid.

Cost comparison

Working out cost comparisons are hard and anyone looking to do a similar trip will need a calculator at hand. 

It’s hard to do a direct comparison between flying and taking the train because so much depends on what the prices are when you book, the route you want to take and how quickly you want to travel and whether to go first class or standard.

But for us at the time of booking (roughly two months in advance) flights from Paris to Faro were about €1,500 for four people, train tickets booked directly with SNCF and Renfe (not interrail) for four people were around €1,200 (this probably could have been much cheaper further in advance), whilst the Interrail option – 4 day passes plus seat reservations was around €810.

So on the face of it travelling by train, especially using Interrail passes, was cheaper – but then add on the cost of two nights in hotels in central Barcelona and there was no real financial benefit of going by train.

But then it was never all about money – what price on not having to spend three hours at Charles de Gaulle airport?

How easy is it to Interrail?

Interrail proved a great option for us, even though it was only a relatively short trip. It’s more suited to those looking to do multiple journeys through various countries, perhaps at a slower pace. But the kids being free was crucial for us, so other families should definitely explore the option.

The one downside to Interrailing through France and Spain is the requirement to book seat reservations for the high-speed trains.

Whilst this sounds fairly straightforward we couldn’t do it through the Interrail app or website so had to be done with Renfe directly. For most countries you can reserve seats through the Interrail app (more on this below).

With SNCF it required a lengthy phone call because we reserved the seats to make sure there were some available before getting the Interrail passes.

For Paris to Barcelona the reservations cost €34 for standard class seats or €48 for first class.

With Renfe it was more complicated although much cheaper (Around €10 to €12 a seat). We were told on the phone that to reserve seats with Interrail you have to do it either at a Spanish train station or by phone but only if you can pick up and pay for the reservations at a Spanish train station within a certain amount of time.

Neither of these were possible when booking from Paris back in May/June. But the helpful website Man at Seat 61 recommended going via the man behind the AndyBTravels website, who charges a small fee. A few emails were exchanged and our reservations for Barcelona to Seville arrived in the post a few days later. 

Renfe and SNCF could make it easier for Interrail passengers.

The Interrail mobile pass on the the Rail Planner app was very easy to use. It was just a case of adding the days when we were travelling and then adding the specific journeys.

This brought up a QR code for each trip but the ticket controllers were always more concerned about the seat reservations we had on paper.

But all went to plan.

 

Conclusion

Those days spent sitting drinking coffee, orange and beer (in separate cups) starring out of train windows at fields, hills, mountains, villages, beach and train platforms were part of the holiday.

I’d say that if you have a day or two to spare then travelling across Europe by train instead of plane is well worth it – yes, even with two young kids.

They might even thank you for it one day if we all help avert a climate disaster. 

Advice

It’s hard to give advice because each person has different requirements that need to be taken into account – whether number of passengers, time needed for travelling, destinations, cost etc.

But plan ahead and do the research to see what’s possible.

One bit of advice if you need to travel quickly is try keep connections to a minimum or give yourself plenty of time to make them.

My colleague Richard Orange had problems on his trip from Sweden to the UK via Denmark, Germany and Belgium because of delays and missed connections.

Useful links and extra info

You can explore Interrail pass options and prices by visiting the Interrail site here. The site offers plenty of info to help you plan your trip and reserve seats on trains if necessary.

The fantastic Man in Seat 61 guide to train travel across Europe is a must-read for anyone planning a trip. It has pages and pages of useful up to date info and can be viewed here.

It also has loads of information on how to use an Interrail pass and calculations to see whether it’s the best option – if you need help with the maths. The page can be viewed here.

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