Tourism slumps, hotel stars dumped

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Hotel occupancy figures from Norway’s important summer season show an overall decline nationwide, with Northern Norway hit surprisingly hard.  Trade Minister Trond Giske, meanwhile, has given up plans to rank Norwegian hotels by a star system, after spending around NOK 10 million to develop a hotel star system that few if any in the hotel industry wanted.

The spectacular scenery of Northern Norway didn't manage to attract nearly as many tourists this summer as it did last year, with overnight stays down 15 percent in July. Here, the Lyngen Alps east of Tromsø. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

The spectacular scenery of Northern Norway didn’t manage to attract nearly as many tourists this summer as it did last year, with overnight stays down 15 percent in July. Here, the Lyngen Alps east of Tromsø. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

New figures from state statistics bureau SSB show that hotels in Norway had 100,000 fewer overnight stays in July, the country’s most important summer holiday month. The total number of overnight stays declined 4 percent nationwide, with a 2.1 percent decline in foreign visitors and a 5 percent decline in the domestic market.

Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) noted that the declines in Norway’s most important markets were considerably higher, with visitors from Germany down 13 percent, visitors from The Netherlands down 26 percent and those from Spain down 31 percent. The double-digit declines were largely attributed to the ongoing economic hard times and high unemployment in Europe.

Growing numbers of cruiseships in the fjords are a threat to the Norwegian hotels where tourists used to say. Now many simply sail in, and sail out. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

Some areas, though, like here at Flåm in southwestern Norway, enjoyed increased numbers of visitors, many of them from China. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

There also was a 21 percent decline in visitors from Japan but that was largely offset by a huge increase in the number of visitors from China. They were up fully 90 percent, with DN reporting that tourists from China now account for more tourists than those from Italy, Spain and Japan.

Overnight stays at rental cabins, hostels and campgrounds were also down, by 10 percent in July even though the national trekking association DNT (Den Norske Turistforeningen) reported a record summer at its mountain cabins and lodges.

“It’s a very mixed picture, with large geographical differences also,” Per Arne Tuftin, tourism director for Innovation Norway, told DN. He noted that tourism in the mountain and fjord areas of Vestlandet (southwestern Norway) was strong, with the Flåm area, for example, reporting big crowds this summer. Tuftin attributes much of the business to the Chinese tourists who mostly visit Oslo and the fjords, not least the famed Flåmsbane train line.

Northern Norway, which has reported a boom in tourism in recent years, showed a surprising decline this year, with hotel stays down 15 percent. Visitors from abroad were down 17 percent, just months after hotels in Tromsø, for example, were reporting a huge increase in winter tourists keen on seeing the Northern Lights. Some travel industry officials were wondering if hotel marketing departments forgot about the Midnight Sun amidst all the Northern Lights promotion.

Outgoing Trade Minister Trond Giske, whose Labour Party lost government power last week, has also had to drop a project he favoured that would have imposed a star-system on Norwegian hotels. The hotels themselves reportedly lost interest in the project, while some industry experts feel that Norwegian hotels generally lack the high levels of service found of "five-star" hotels in Asia or the US, for example, so a star system in Norway could be misleading. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

Outgoing Trade Minister Trond Giske had to drop a project he favoured that would have imposed a star-system on Norwegian hotels. The hotels themselves reportedly lost interest in the project, while some industry experts feel that Norwegian hotels generally lack the high levels of service found at “five-star” hotels in Asia or the US, for example, so a star system in Norway could have been misleading. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

The decline comes despite programs in which Innovation Norway often arranges and pays for foreign travel writers to visit Norway, in the hopes they’ll write positive stories about their trips when they get back home. DN reported earlier this summer that while such “freebies” raise ethical concerns and won’t be accepted by most Norwegian media, even some writers from such respected publications as The Guardian in the UK have accepted trips that were paid for by the state tourism agency Visit Norway. In a Guardian story featuring Norway’s summer music festivals, no mention of the state sponsorship was made, wrote DN.

The decline in tourism this year can also be blamed on Norway’s high prices, although Tuftin claimed earlier this summer that visitors coming to Norway “know that it’s expensive,” especially for food and drink. Tuftin told Aftenposten’s magazine that  “We try to get them to see Norway as a priceless experience.” Some tour organizers are now targeting the exclusive segment of the market that appeals to visitors with big budgets. Among those visiting Norway this past summer: Microsoft founder Bill Gates and his family, Russian businessmen, some Arab princes and various American celebrities.

Meanwhile, Norwegian hotels won’t be adopting a star-system meant to rank their quality. Only five of Norway’s 1,050 hotels had agreed to join the star system, with none of the large local hotel chains willing to fund a star classification system.

“I see that the whole project resembles more of a black hole than a star,” Trade Minister Trond Giske admitted to DN last spring after investing around NOK 10 million since it was launched in 2007. Now he’s decided it won’t be possible to go further with the project.

“In the beginning, it was the players themselves who wanted a star system and we followed up,” Giske told DN in his own defense. “We see that other countries in Europe have done the same, but interest from the hotels has declined considerably. Therefore the project is being put on ice.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund