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It’s hard to agree on what is good taste and what is bad. This also applies to the effects of tourism.
Last month, during the Arctic Frontiers conference, I attended a debate about Tromsø’s position in the Arctic. It was titled ‘Tromsø seen from an outsider’s perspective’, and participating were Grete Ellingsen, state secretary for Norway’s local government and modernisation minister, and Hilde Sandvik, a newspaper editor. Their discussion touched on several topics, but the one that resulted in the most engaged exchange was Tromsø’s increasing popularity as a destination for foreign tourists. In Ms Sandvik’s words, tourism in Tromsø was uncool and inferior.
Ms Sandvik, who lives in Bergen, especially looked down her nose at Storgata, Tromsø’s high street. In her opinion, it was cluttered by souvenir shops. No matter where she looked, she saw one, and, in her opinion, that sort of eyesore is unbefitting a city with the ambition of being a leading Arctic city.
Bergen has more visitors than Tromsø does. I don’t know what Ms Sandvik thinks about Bergen or how tourism has affected it. Nevertheless, a comparison is still in order: Bryggen, Bergen’s high street, is 300 metres long and has just as many tourist-oriented stores as Tromsø’s kilometre-long Storgata.
Of course, Storgata does have businesses that offer wilderness expeditions and trinkets to tourists – about three or four in all. The rest of the businesses cater to residents: clothing stores, cafés, restaurants, convenience stores, banks, hair-dressers, street-food vendors, brewpubs, you name it. Shops for tourists are in the clear minority. There is a wide range of businesses.
To be sure, tourists have become a fixture on the streets of Tromsø, and they give the city an entirely different feel – as well as a sense of diversity.
These visitors have also contributed to the city’s development, which has meant jobs for residents, customers for businesses and tax revenue for the local council. Visitors are welcome; they contribute to our city’s growth and they help diversify our economy.
Tourism has an image problem with professionals the likes of Ms Sandvik. And this is something the industry must find a way to address, not least in a city like Tromsø, which has a large proportion of professionals.
The tourism industry should grab the bull by its horns and open up a debate about the matter, and in the process make it clear that the city’s popularity as a tourism destination is an asset. There is already a tendency to put down tourism, and not just by outsiders, like Ms Sandvik. This is also something local leaders can be found doing: in January, leading figures on the local council criticised the use of public spaces for tourism-oriented activities.
Tromsø’s popularity as a destination is only going to grow. This is a discussion we need to have before it gets too late. Businesses need to be ready for a future that will see Tromsø receive twice as many visitors we get today. We should look to other popular northern destinations for inspiration for how to manage this: Lofoten, Reykjavík and Rovaniemi are three examples of destinations that have seen the up and the downside of tourism.
We should go visit these places ourselves to learn what they are doing – or we should invite their leaders to come and speak with us about sustainable Arctic tourism. Tromsø can and should lead the way in this discussion: we have the resources to do it, and hopefully we are open-minded enough to do it. Before we can do this, we need to agree that tourism is something that is welcomed as a contribution to the city’s businesses and its economic growth – not just by the population at large and our political leaders, but also by outside observers.
The author is the Arctic director for Rambøll and a resident of Tromsø. This commentary was originally published in Norwegian on his personal blog, which looks at the northern Norway’s place in the world.