They don’t like having to squat behind trees or rocks, and have been chided for doing so, but tourists in Norway often don’t have much choice. A lack of public lavatories at tourist attractions is causing problems again this summer, and reigniting debate over whether a tourist tax would help.
The situation is acute at popular Torghatten, located just south of Brønnøysund in Nordland. It attracts thousands of visitors eager to hike up to and even through its famous hole, or up to its summit, only to be let down when the need for a toilet arises before the drive or cycling trip back to town.
Two families from Sweden were so besvikna (disappointed) over the lack of lavatories that they wrote an angry email to the local authorities in charge, with a copy to the local newspaper Brønnøysunds Avis. The paper reported how a quick if smelly tour around the packed parking lot at Torghatten’s trailhead offered plenty of evidence that visitors felt forced to squat in the bushes.
That wasn’t nice at all, one of the familes complained, and it’s been a problem in recent years around the country and at Torghatten. There are no public toilets at the site, and the only one at a new café and inn located nearby is posted with warnings that it has no public facilities either. That leaves a local campgrounds, which isn’t equipped to handle all the hikers either.
Not keeping up with demand
The disappointed Swedish visitors also complained over a lack of toilets at Svarthopen, an outdoor recreation area that local officials promote as fine for families. “The facilities we provided long ago at Svarthopen haven’t kept up with the times,” Magnar Solbakk of the Brønnøy municipality admitted to Brønnøysunds Avis. He claimed construction of toilet facilities at Torghatten is a high priority.
“It’s in principle easy to set up toilets,” Solbakk said, “but it’s the ongoing operation of them that presents challenges.” In many remote areas, the toilets must function without the presence of a sewer system, and either must not only be kept clean but emptied as well. Those with water and septic systems need seasonal maintenance as well to prevent water from freezing and pipes from bursting.
Therein lies the ultimate paradox in Norway. Officials have spent millions on lavish, architectually distinctive infrastructure that’s often accompanied by modern art, like at the relatively new bridge over the Hardanger Fjord, but failed to provide for visitors’ basic human needs.
“The goal is to construct a public service building in cooperation with Nasjonal turistveg (the national tourist road system that’s part of the state roads agency Statens vegvesen),” Solbakk said. It’s been promoting the roads and areas like Lofoten and the scenic Helgelands Coast, and has invested heavily in ultra-modern roadside rest stops with fancy toilets. Now the facilities can’t seem to handle the crowds arriving.
Yngve Holm, a local entrepreneur farther up the Helgelands Coast, recently opened a stylish new bar and restaurant, Nyt Bar & Spiseri, at the busy ferry pier in Nesna. He hasn’t resorted to denying non-customers access to the restaurant’s lone toilet, but notes the cost of cleaning up after tourists who lack alternatives.
“Traffic is increasing year by year, so I think more accessibility to public toilets and garbage containers is something the county and the municipality need to think about, and at least have a strategy for by next season,” Holm told local newspaper Helgelands Blad last week.
He also approached the state highway authorities at Statens vegvesen earlier this summer. “There’s well over a thousand people passing through this ferry connection every day this summer, so we have a problem,” Holm wrote.
He asked the state roads agency to set up a toilet, or at least a urinal, at the ferry pier along Highway 17, which has national tourist road status. State authorities responded that he should direct the public to a waiting room at the pier, but conceded that the problem would be referred to the agency’s section for operations and maintenance.
Farther north, at Grøtfjord in Troms, tourists and residents alike have been waiting for local authorities to set up a toilet for years at the popular outdoor recreational site. One local resident, meanwhile, has allowed them to use an outhouse he set up in his garden. “This is far from an isolated example” of the lack of public toilets, the editor of Nord24/Nordlys, Rune Endresen, wrote in a commentary in the Bodø-based newspaper Avisa Nordland. “The situation is the same many places in Northern Norway.” And in Southern Norway as well, it can be added.
Tourist tax sought
Endresen, like many others also in scenic Lofoten, lamented the state’s refusal to impose some sort of tourist tax that would help pay for services tourists need. He claimed that local jurisdictions struggle to provide for tourists along with their own social welfare obligations to residents. Visitors use the roads, need to dump trash, certainly need lavatories and often turn up injured or sick at locally funded emergency clinics. He argues that a national tourist tax could cover the costs of tourists’ needs.
“When we’re on holiday in Rome, Barcelona or on Crete, we pay various forms of tourist tax without blinking,” Endresen wrote. “It’s hard to believe that the tourism industry will suddenly see a decline or have to lay off workers if a tax of NOK 20 (USD 2.30) a day is charged to visit Tromsø.”
Solbakk in Brønnøysund noted that the toilet trouble is at least offset somewhat by the boom in bobiler (motor homes) now rolling around Norway. “We’re fortunate that most of the visitors coming from outside the area are driving bobiler with the built-in facilities they have,” Solbakk told Brønnøysumds Avis. He also noted that a looming increase in tourists off the Hurtigruten vessels stopping at Brønnøysund will be driven to Torghatten in buses equipped with toilets on board.