The 'Capital of the Arctic' Finds a New True North
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
There’s a reason Arctic Norwegians are famed for their resilience.
By Stephen Starr
Inside the soccer-themed rail station bar in Tromsø’s town center, a group of middle-aged English tourists and locals are getting on like long-lost friends. Rounds of beer are bought, backs are slapped, playful soccer insults are exchanged. Five years back, such a scene would have been rare. Today it’s commonplace, evidence of the rebirth of a region and the city at its heart.
For years, life in Tromsø — the so-called “capital of the Arctic” — was grim, after the town’s lifeblood, its centuries-old whale- and seal-hunting industries, collapsed in the late decades of the 20th century. Drug and alcohol abuse was rife, and a surfeit of Thai massage parlors gave the town a seedy feel. Then there’s the climate: When the sun sets in winter, it doesn’t re-emerge for seven weeks. Want to escape to the bright lights of Oslo, Norway’s capital? Then pack up for a 23-hour drive north.
But Arctic Norway, while still cold and isolated, is now a hot new destination. More people are heading north as facilities ranging from tourism to education to research — and better access to climate-induced melting glaciers — grow.
Tromsø is ground zero in this reinvention. Increasingly accessible from abroad via air and sea and blessed with ice-free waters year-round, the city has become one of the world’s top locations to spot orcas and humpback whales. Next year, cruise line companies will begin taking passengers from Tromsø to the archipelago of Franz Josef Land in the Arctic Sea, a further 900 miles north. Thousands more come every year to catch a glimpse of the stunning northern lights: In the 12 years since Innovation Norway and its partners first marketed the aurora borealis, the region has experienced a 378 percent increase in foreign visits.
There’s a future for tourism in the Arctic, as long as we manage to do it in a sustainable way.
Kristin Røymo, Tromsø’s mayor
The town itself is undergoing a renaissance. A philharmonic orchestra opened in 2009, and the Tromsø Polar Bears rugby club, the world’s most northerly, was established a year later. A bustling immigrant community is setting up East African–themed clubs and Syrian eateries. And academic hubs like the multidisciplinary Arctic University of Norway and the Norwegian Polar Institute, a world leader in Arctic scientific research and mapping, are expanding here, highlighting Tromsø’s transformation from a labor-intensive to a knowledge-based city.
“[There are] new jobs being established inside and outside the city center. Infrastructure is being built,” says Kristin Røymo, Tromsø’s mayor. “I think travelers seek safe and different experiences [and] there’s a future for tourism in the Arctic, as long as we manage to do it in a sustainable way.”
For sure, Norway isn’t alone in trying to tap this market. Some 960 miles to the west is Iceland. A banking collapse in 2008 prompted the government there to embark on a drive to attract foreign tourists. In 2017, the country with a population of just 335,000 welcomed 2.2 million visitors, mostly Europeans and North Americans who come for Iceland’s geothermal spas, lava fields and icebergs.
But north of the Arctic Circle, Tromsø’s ongoing transformation is unmatched. Statistics Norway recorded 136,000 foreigner “guest night” stays at hotels and other accommodations in Troms county, where Tromsø is situated, in 2010. Last year, that figure rose to 353,000, not counting private accommodations such as Airbnb rentals, which, given the high cost of living in Arctic Norway, claims a sizable, if unrecorded, market share. The town’s native population stands at around 75,000.
“It [the tourist influx] started about three or four years ago, I think after a BBC show came and filmed here,” says Sedo, the manager of a soccer-themed pub. “We get a lot of English, Italians, French and Australians. They’ve all been great, well-behaved.”
Research too is a key element of the city’s reinvention. With more than 20 graduate-level programs offered in English, the Arctic University of Norway is now ranked by the Times Higher Education as “one of the most international universities in the world.” And the cutting-edge level of research at the Norwegian Polar Institute is drawing acclaimed naturalist Sir David Attenborough and his TV crew, who have been known to follow its researchers across the Arctic wilderness.
The recent interest in the High North has a lot to do with new, cheap flights opening between Europe and the Scandinavian Arctic, and a transatlantic budget corridor linking Europe to North America via Norway and Iceland that began in 2015. Even within Scandinavia, flights linking Tromsø with the towns of Lulea in northern Sweden and Oulu in Finland were opened in 2015 to boost business and tourism links.
But the influx of tourists has created major demands on infrastructure. Local media has reported that Tromsø’s waste disposal and parking facilities are at a breaking point. In July 2017, two Swedish hikers were rescued from nearby Lofoten Islands, the latest episode in a string of tourist emergencies that local authorities are ill-prepared to face.
“There needs to be a plan for sustainability, and to inform tourists better in terms of preparation for hiking — that clothing, food and physical effort are required,” says Nina Prebensen, a specialist in Arctic tourism and marketing at the Arctic University of Norway.
Hollywood also holds a share of the blame. Scenes from the 2013 animated film Frozen were modeled after Norway’s rugged landscape, something experts believe led to its western fjords being overwhelmed by selfie-taking visitors in 2016. And that airline running flights between Tromsø, Sweden and Finland since 2015? It folded last year because it ran out of money.
Still, the people of Arctic Norway have shown they are nothing if not resilient. Their next challenge is to manage their newfound success. Their ancestors eked out a living in a most inhospitable place — who’d bet against them now?
- Stephen Starr, Stephen Starr is a journalist and author who lived in Syria from 2007 until 2012. He is the author of Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising.Contact Stephen Starr