Findings on tourism in sparsely populated areas in the Nordic Region - but the growing interest also has its downside

The corona pandemic accelerated the intense pressure for change in the tourism industry brought about by climate change, which has been reinforced by the huge enthusiasm of tourists for nature destinations. My discussions with Norwegian and Swedish tourism entrepreneurs and developers at the end of January and beginning of February confirmed that the sparsely populated areas of northern Europe are living with a new reality after the pandemic. Both the opportunities and the challenges have changed.
nainen pitelee kiesin ohjaksia museossa

Much was also shared by tourism businesses in Northern Ostrobothnia and Halifax, Canada, at the "Tourism after the Crown" webinar on 8 February 2023. A book could be written about the opportunities and challenges of these destinations in less populated areas, but I will highlight a few key observations here.

Uniqueness as a strength - what about sustainability?

Responsible tourism is not a new topic, but during the Covid-19 pandemic, the debate on climate change came to the fore in a particular way. With travel and assembly restrictions, people's eyes turned to local and natural destinations. After the pandemic, the first domestic tourists returned, and over the past years, international tourists have also returned. Their increasing numbers and intrusion even into the yards of residents to see the Northern Lights caused much debate for several reasons.

During our research and conference trip to Tromsø in the last days of January 2023, we heard from local tourism entrepreneurs, tourism developers, VisitTroms and ProTroms experts, and city representatives about the challenges and opportunities that the explosion of international interest has brought. At the ArcticFrontiers conference, these themes were also discussed by experts and decision-makers from different sectors. Tourism will always have an impact on the environment, there is no denying that, but there are many very small actions that can significantly reduce the effect. The hotel policy of "washing towels less often" or "not using plastic straws" is easy for tourists to understand and for businesses to verify, but this is just a drop in the ocean which, in the absence of other evidence, can even be seen as "greenwashing". We also need to consider where food comes from, what kind of waste is generated, and whether tourists leave their rubbish and other waste in the environment. Nor should we forget the social aspect of responsibility, from the point of view of employees and local residents.

With the liberalization of restrictions in northern Europe, we are seeing a new influx of tourists. Tourists are looking for authentic experiences, local 'hidden gems', closeness to nature, and routes where tourists have not yet left their mark. Cottages and other places with lots of space around - and where you need your own car to get there - are particularly popular. But how do we ensure that the peace and quiet of the local residents are not unduly disturbed, or that these "hidden gems" do not become tourist traps with their flip sides? If nature cannot cope with these flows, would it not be better for tourists to stay in areas designed to withstand the masses?
When developing services, dialogue between entrepreneurs, developers, and decision-makers is essential. It is also good to involve local people in the development of tourist services, keeping the original idea and spirit at the center. It is important to ensure that communication reaches tourists and that they also internalize the desired policies in practice.

The Jokkmokk winter market has an unusually long tradition

As an example of a tourist destination that has developed from a truly local approach, the Jokkmokk winter market, which took place in February 2023 for the 418th time, has become a phenomenon. We traveled there as part of the MERVA project, together with tourism entrepreneurs and developers on a group trip organized by PohjolaNorden. Traveling in a full coach combined sustainability and the benefits of networking. Entrepreneurs had the opportunity to present their services to other interested participants, and at the same time, entrepreneurs and developers got to know each other better.

The Jokkmokk Winter Market has been held since the 17th century, and this annual event in a small village of fewer than 3000 inhabitants has grown to become the largest market in northern Scandinavia, attracting around 50,000 visitors each year. It was gratifying to see how Sámi culture has been preserved in the market in all its forms - from the products sold to the way people dress and the side events. There were some stalls of the same type as everywhere else, but they did not dominate the market's range or change the spirit of the market.

Few places can, and need not, have growth stories like Jokkmokk. It is essential to look at familiar surroundings and things through 'foreign eyes'. Seeing what Finland has to offer is a unique experience: picking berries directly from the forest in your mouth, or walking on the ice when the sea is frozen and seeing white everywhere. If you use oatmeal left over from a tourist's breakfast table as the raw material for rolls, be sure to tell your customers about it and be proud of it. So let's not forget the responsible acts that are already traditional for us. Originally, these actions may have been motivated by a lack of resources, and environmental values may not have been considered or thought of at the time. That does not mean that we should not be genuinely proud of this practical wisdom!

Katariina Ala-Rämi, PhD, Senior Researcher, University of Oulu Kerttu Saalasti Institute

Riitta Forsten-Astikainen