Norway’s summer tourist season is far from over, even though most Norwegians are back in school and at work. Along with the hordes of foreign tourists still in the country this summer are foreign tour buses that are all but driving Norwegian tour bus operators off the roads.
Newspaper Aftenposten reported recently about all the tour buses with foreign license plates, often from Poland and the Baltic countries. Many unload large groups of tourists from South Korea and China, after being chartered by Asian tour operators who don’t want to pay Norway’s higher prices for Norwegian buses with Norwegian drivers, even though their local knowledge of the areas visited would be higher as well.
It’s all a matter of money: Aftenposten cited examples of a Norwegian bus driver earning an average NOK 36,000 per month (USD 4,000), and a driver from Poland earning just NOK 13,000.
The phenomenon of buses from, for example, Estonia that are carrying tourists from South Korea and China is upsetting Norwegian tourism officials and cutting into the country’s tourism industry revenues.
“This sort of operation violates the rules for so-called ‘cabotage’ transport,” Jon Stordrange, director of Norway’s national transport employers’ organization NHO Transport, told Aftenposten. He notes that foreign bus drivers’ pay is far below the nationally set minimum in high-cost Norway. Few if any foreign tour bus companies pay Norway’s VAT tax either, as demanded from Norwegian enterprises when annual revenues for goods or services exceed NOK 50,000 in a given year.
A survey conducted by NHO Transport this summer resulted in observations of nearly 2,000 foreign tour buses in Norway by early August. That’s 6 percent higher than last summer. NHO Transport monitors have also registered the same buses several times, most of them apparently violating the cabotage rules against transport between places within a country that’s not where the transporter is based.
Foreign trucks or buses can only carry goods or people between two places in Norway if there’s a special reason for it. Transport firms from with the European Economic Area can engage in “temporary cabotage” in Norway, but the laws are vague, frequently exploited and difficult to enforce.
Even have own drinks on board
It all means that tour operators abroad are paying far less for their customers’ bus travel, and thus contributing far less to the Norwegian economy. “The only thing these bus companies buy in Norway is their fuel,” complained Stordrange. One miffed tourism operator in Lofoten told newsinenglish.no earlier this summer that overseas bus companies “even have their own beer and bottled water (from Poland, for example) on board” for their passengers, so they don’t have to pay Norway’s high beverage prices.
Norway’s own tour bus fleet has declined by 30 percent in the past 10 years, largely because of the foreign competition. The number of foreign tour buses on the road in Norway now exceeds Norwegian tour buses.
“Something must be done, but nothing is,” said Gunnulf Hegna, a bus driver for HM Kristiansens Automobilbyrå (HMK), long one of Norway’s major players. He and colleague Kjell Bjerke told Aftenposten that they often hear of low pay, long days and poor working conditions for Polish or Estonian drivers transporting other foreign tourists around Norway. They’re paid such low wages and accommodated so cheaply “that it’s impossible for us to compete against their companies.”
Norway’s labour authority (Arbeidstilsynet) has tried to monitor the trade and found a high rate of abuse. All bus drivers in Norway are supposed to earn at least NOK 156 per hour, but 77 percent of foreign drivers questioned did not receive the minimum wage.
One Estonian bus driver who’s worked in Norway for the past three summers said he initially “had good relations” with Norwegian bus drivers. “Now they’re reacting differently to our presence, and I understand them,” he said. His employer is a Chinese tour operator, “who only cares about price,” and wants to provide its tourists with the cheapest possible tours of Norway.
One Chinese guide said she’d prefer Norwegian drivers familiar with Norwegian roads, “but the operators in China hire Baltic bus companies. They say thay can’t tolerate the costs of using Norwegians.”
State authorities are pursing some cabotage cases, including one operator from Lithuania. A company spokesman acknowledged that they’d engaged in cabotage, and told Aftenposten they were “in the process” of registering with Norwegian tax authorities.