Norway has won international acclaim for its elegant roadside rest stops and stunning vista points set up along refurbished national tourist routes. The sheer numbers of tourists this summer have, however, caught local officials and visitors themselves with their pants down.
The state highway department known as Statens vegvesen, which is responsible for maintaining some of the most unique restrooms in the world, woefully underestimated the masses of people urgently needing to use them. That’s left many, according to state broadcaster NRK, overflowing with raw sewage and garbage, and forced officials to install decidedly inelegant portable toilets next to their architectural gems.
“We didn’t account for so many visitors coming,” admitted Per Ritzler, media contact for the highway department’s Nasjonale turistveger.
The state has spent hundreds of millions of kroner building and promoting the 18 scenic tourist routes established around the country. They haven’t invested nearly enough in maintaining them, it turns out. Increasing numbers of tourists are being met by closed, filthy or literally clogged toilets, prompting them to resort to ducking behind the nearest tree or rock in their time of need.
“Our capacity (to clean and maintain the new toilets) is deficient in some places,” Ritzler told NRK. “That’s because of the enormous public pressure on the national tourist routes. In addition Norway has had explosive growth in tourism in general. That created a wave we didn’t fully plan for.”
The situation is severe on Norway’s wildly popular Lofoten Islands, where garbage has piled up this summer and tourists also don’t find enough open and available public toilets. One frustrated tourism official in the mountain area of Sogn claims neither highway officials nor local authorities can blame the tourist boom itself.
“This is a result of poor planning,” Ståle Brandshaug, tourist chief for Sogn, told NRK. “The state highway department should have seen this problem coming much earlier. Stegastein (one of the popular roadside rests along the Aurlandsfjell route) has been an attraction for several years, and Flåm and Aurland have more than a million visitors a year. When we see how the toilet problems repeat themselves, they should have been solved instead.”
On Wednesday, calls were going out for imposing a so-called “tourist tax” to help finance more systematic maintenance and expansion of toilet facilities and clear away garbage. Brandshaug pointed to other countries where tourists are charged taxes at hotels or museums, for example. “The money goes into a fund to pay for tourist services, like toilets, garbage collection and parking lots,” he told NRK.
Norway’s state government, however, turned down proposals for a new tax earlier this year. National employers’ association NHO, which represents many tourism-related businesses including hotels, also opposes a tourist tax. They fear even higher costs for tourists will put Norway at a competitive disadvantage. “The Parliament also turned down proposals for a tourist tax,” noted Dilek Ayhan, state secretary for the Conservative Party in Norway’s trade ministry. “Norway already has a high cost level and it’s important that we keep costs down if our tourist industy is to compete against other countries.”
Others argue that tourists who have met closed toilets on the tourist routes over Lofoten and the mountains of Aurlandsfjellet, for example, may be more put off than they would be by a tax. Some popular vista points have been fouled by the consequences of toilets found closed by people in need of them.
One tourist guide, Helena Sancho Idoate, told NRK that she asks her busloads of visitors to hold on until they get to their hotels. The messy toilets “do leave a bad impression,” she told NRK.