Outlying hotels struggle to survive

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It’s winter and low season at many outlying hotels around Norway. Some wonder whether they’ll survive until next summer, but are cheered that an ill-guided government plan to restrict the foreign tour bus operators that bring them guests has been dropped, and now the same government may even offer them new funding as health care retreats.

The beauty of Norway’s fjords, like here in Aurland, is no guarantee of economic survival for hotels dotting their banks. Many in small outlying areas are struggling to attract overnight guests, even in the summer. Some wonder whether they’ll survive to next summer, but at least foreign bus operators won’t be prevented from driving in visitors. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

Hotels that traditionally have catered to tourists visiting, for example, Norway’s fjords have been hard hit in recent years. Increasing numbers of tourists now visit the Norwegian fjords on huge cruiseships, and the travel patterns of earlier years have changed. It’s not as common for busloads of tourists to arrive in the late afternoon and fill up the hotels day after day, while the conference market has moved to urban areas or the clusters of new hotels built around airports. And Norwegians on holiday don’t opt for long hotel stays as often as they once did, opting instead to travel abroad or go to their own hytter (holiday homes).

That’s why hotel owners from Hardanger to Hedmark, and their advocates at industry associations like Virke, protested loudly last year when Norway’s left-center government tried to protect Norwegian tour bus operators by proposing restrictions to keep foreign tour bus companies out of the Norwegian market. The government effort, led by former Transport Secretary Magnhild Meltveit Kleppe of the Center Party, was keen to help the Norwegian bus operators fend off cheaper foreign competition by restricting the number of days a foreign bus and driver could be in Norway, thereby pressing them of the country.

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

It was classic Norwegian protectionism, which the Center Party often resorts to, but in this case, the effort was found to clearly violate Norway’s trade agreement with the EU and it was shelved. Hilde Charlotte Solheim of employers’ organization Virke, which represented the hotel owners, told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) that the government’s and Center Party’s retreat was “a major victory” for district tourism. Edmund Utne of Ullensvang Hotel on the Hardanger Fjord called it a “joyful and sensible political decision.”

Now the Center Party may be trying to appease upset rural hotel operators by proposing that some of them, especially those with swimming pools and spa facilities, may be able to serve new roles providing health care, rehabilitation services or even just meeting room space that local townships can’t. Newspaper Dagsavisen reported that the Center Party-run ministry in charge of municipal governments has provided funding to research how health care reform can be tied to district hotels’ need for more guests and stable operations. If successful, the hotels may be able to take in patients needing rest and daily exercise.

Meanwhile, some district hotels already are working hard to lure back Norwegian guests for everything from company parties to romantic gourmet weekends. With the international tourist market static, and foreign guests spending the same amount of money in Norway as they did five years ago, according to newspaper Aftenposten, local hotels are targeting newly affluent Norwegians and companies tied to the booming oil and gas industry.

Some hotels in districts where there are concentrations of oil-related businesses are doing relatively well. The small Storfjord Hotel outside Ålesund is among them: When the Russian, American and other foreign tourists stop coming in late summer, the hotel turns to guests from a region where business is fairly strong.

Hotels outside such districts aren’t doing as well, and pessimism is rising. “It’s not surprising,” Per-Arne Tuftin of Innovation Norway told Aftenposten. “It has to do with the (crisis) situation in Europe.” He’s still hoping more Norwegians will take their holidays at home.

So are investors Knut Kloster and Erik Berg, who just joined forces to establish a new chain of their more than 20 unique hotel properties from Oslo to Lofoten called “Classic Norway.” The hotels highlight “the good life,” a phrase which featured in what’s soon to be the former name of Kloster’s own long-standing group of historic and scenic hostelries around Norway.

“The name (Det Virkelig Gode Liv – The Really Good Life) was meant to be a bit humorous,” Kloster old DN. “It has functioned well, but ‘Classic Norway’ is probably even better.”

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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