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Welcome to Scandinavia, spiritual home of sustainable slow travel

Secondary Categories: Polar RegionsFeature

Greenland, Iceland, and Norway have a lot to teach us all about living in the moment and taking the time to truly appreciate the wonders of travel. And the best way to learn is to visit them for yourself.

It should come as no surprise that many of the world’s most sustainable travel destinations are Scandinavian (and all of them are European). The region is known for its low-emission public transport, eco-friendly hotels, and farm-to-table dining. But why did this come to pass? And how can the rest of us take travel inspiration from Scandinavia?

In Scandinavia, slow travel is not so much a buzzword as it is a way of life, says Hege Vibeke Barnes of Innovation Norway. “Having time off in nature is super important in Scandinavia,” she explains. “The work day is 7.5 hours and all of our time off is protected.” When the weather allows, a huge portion of this free time is spent outdoors: be it hiking, sailing, or skiing. No wonder, then, that Scandinavians are the happiest people on earth.

Cross-country skiing on frozen lake in Joensuu, Finland
Cross-country skiing on a frozen lake in Finland. Finland has been ranked #1 Happiest Country in the World since 2018! (Photo: Katherine Lalangan)

Scandinavians grow up with rules about venturing into nature in a respectful way, and people have freedom to roam – and even to camp – on privately-owned land. It helps that Scandinavia is home to just 27 million people, spread across 230 million acres of some of the most spectacular landscapes on the planet.

It follows that “this is how we like to travel,” says Vibeke Barnes. “We don’t go on holiday to add to our stresses.” But while slow travel might come naturally to Scandinavians, foreigners sometimes require a bit of help. “We don’t want tourism to impact our way of life,” she says. “We say ‘a good place to live, is a good place to visit.’”

To this end, the Norwegian government spends vast amounts on building sustainable and off-the-beaten-path tourist destinations. They do this by providing funding to small local businesses and by building architecturally stunning viewpoints and restrooms (here’s the world’s most beautiful public toilet) that encourage tourists to interact with nature in a sensitive manner. The Geirangerfjord is renowned for its natural beauty, but, says Vibeke Barnes, “the fjord next door is just as beautiful.”

Norway also tries to encourage tourists to stay for longer and visit outside the peak seasons. And it seems to be working: the average American tourist spends 11 nights in the country.

Small village and mountains at Tafjord, Norway
Tafjord, just 30 miles away from Geirangerfjord.

What is slow travel?

The slow travel movement can trace its origins to the slow food movement which was born in Italy in 1986 in response to the proliferation of American fast-food chains in the food-proud nation.

Slow travel takes this concept and runs with it. It’s all about minimizing travel distance and spending more time in each place. About eating and shopping local, learning new things, and generally having an authentic experience. As a purpose-driven travel company, these things are all very close to our heart… Which is why we’re so glad to now be introducing travelers to the wonders of Greenland, Iceland, Norway, and the rest of Scandinavia.

All of our tours are custom and private, giving you the free time you need to explore independently, eat at local restaurants, relax, and engage with locals. And we always do our best to include destinations, hotels, and excursions that authentically reflect and respect the local culture.

The chicken and egg of Scandinavian sustainability

The Norwegian government does a lot to promote sustainability in all aspects of life, says Vibeke Barnes. This ranges from building infrastructure to encourage people to remain in villages and rural districts, to incentivizing people to buy electric cars. “It starts with tax breaks and free parking,” explains Vibeke Barnes. “But then it becomes a trend. More than 80% of new cars sold in Norway are now electric.”

Another example of government and society working together is the New Nordic food movement, which in many ways kickstarted the global trend for local, seasonal produce. While the undisputed poster child of New Nordic cuisine is Rene Redzepi of Noma restaurant in Copenhagen, Denmark (Noma has three Michelin stars and has been voted the world’s best restaurant five times), its 2004 founding manifesto was signed by “chefs, farmers, politicians, representatives from the food industry, and other foodies from across the Nordic Region.”

Fish hang on drying rack in Norwegian fishery in Norway
Norway takes pride in their fresh, delectable farm-to-table seafood.

Now, two decades later, says Vibeke Barnes “chefs and home cooks throughout the region are highlighting local ingredients. Farm-to-table eating is huge, locally caught seafood is everywhere.”

A similar thing is happening in neighboring Sweden, home of Greta Thunberg. As AFAR magazine notes:

Visit Sweden has a goal of making itself “the world’s most sustainable and attractive destination based on innovation” by 2030, and has made huge investments in time and money into that mission. Some of Sweden’s sustainable travel programs include having all the public transit in Stockholm run on 100 percent renewable energy (a feat accomplished in 2017), pushing for more than 250 hotels and accommodations to meet the strict requirements of the Nordic Ecolabel, a rigorous environmental certification program, and introducing an ecotourism charter called Nature’s Best.

Hashtags for good

For all the Swedish government’s efforts, there has also been a flurry of grassroots “hashtag activism” on social media. The World Economic Forum reports that after the term #flygskam (#flightshame) hit the headlines in 2019, the overall number of passengers at Swedish airports dropped 8%, with domestic flights seeing a more dramatic 15% decline.

While the Western media picked up on the “shame” component of the term, Nordics.info, a website affiliated with Aarhus University, observed “a longer and more positive movement.” The We stay on the Ground organization, founded by Swedish neighbors Maja Rosén and Lotta Hammar in January 2018, goes to great lengths “not to shame people, but to encourage.”

Metro trains in Stockholm, Sweden
Metro trains in Stockholm, Sweden.

Another source of encouragement has been the #tagskryt or #trainbrag movement. And it has definitely worked. While the COVID-19 pandemic made analyzing a longer trend impossible, the marked increase in Swedish train journeys between 2018 and 2019 coincided with the emergence of #tagskryt.

According to Vibeke Barnes the #flygskam movement has matured since it hit the headlines. “People have realized that you have to fly to experience other cultures,” she says. “We all know that travel is one of the best ways of broadening your mind and shifting your perspectives.” But that doesn’t stop you from being mindful of how you travel. “If you fly a long way, then stay longer. And while you’re in the country, travel sustainably.” This might mean taking the train, but it might also mean taking a plane – Norway has set itself the ambitious goal of making all domestic flights electric by 2030!

Slow travel in action

While all of our tours can be tailored to meet your slow travel needs, here are three sample itineraries that really lend themselves to it.

Our eight-day Greenland Discovery Tour takes in only two destinations in Greenland (the capital city of Nuuk and fascinating Ilulissat), giving you the time to truly appreciate this otherworldly polar destination. During the course of your adventure, you’ll visit a vibrant open-air market offering fresh catches like fish, seal, and reindeer. You’ll also immerse yourself in Greenlandic culture on the Sermermiut Settlement Walk and you’ll (hopefully) learn a new skill when you try your hand at the age-old tradition of Inuit kayaking.

Road trip near Vestrahorn mountain and Stokksnes beach in Höfn, Iceland
A road trip is one of the best ways to explore Iceland!

Our super-flexible Iceland Self-Drive Adventure Tour allows you to go as slow as you like while exploring the Land of Fire and Ice. While you travel, you’ll have loads of opportunities to embrace the ethos of slow travel and sustainability. Iceland’s wide-open spaces – peppered with volcanoes, glaciers, geysers, puffins, and more – cannot be truly appreciated in a hurry.

Our 12-day Norway Highlights Tour is the perfect introduction to the scenery and culture of this Nordic gem. Day 3 is all about #trainbrag, as you follow the world famous Flåm Railway from Oslo to Flåm via Myrdal Mountain. And the four-day cruise from Bergen to Tromso is the very definition of slow travel. The eco-friendly ship stops at several small communities along the way, encouraging engagement, enlightenment, and relaxation – all at the pace of nature.

Experience the slow wonders of Scandinavia for yourself. Check out our most popular Scandinavia tours here. Or speak to a Destination Expert about crafting your own.

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