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How will Denmark be affected by climate change-driven tourism?

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Chloé Skye Weiser - [email protected]
How will Denmark be affected by climate change-driven tourism?
Tourists walk through a rainy Copenhagen in June 2023. Climate change is expected to drive more tourists to cooler European countries like Denmark. How will the country manage and benefit from a growing tourism sector? Photo: Liselotte Sabroe/Ritzau Scanpix

An increase in temperatures across Europe has tourists eyeing more northern countries like Denmark as future holiday destinations. But is more tourism from climate change a good thing for the Nordic nation?

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The post-Covid travel boom has continued this summer with sky-high flight ticket prices. But in popular destinations like Spain, Italy, and Greece, where temperatures reached record highs of 45°C, climate change-induced heat waves are raising concerns for future tourist seasons.

As a result, tourists may turn their sights to cooler summer destinations like Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Iceland.

The Local spoke to Danish tourism and government agencies who said they could not speculate about the future. Nevertheless, we found a few clear trends emerging. 

The lay of the land

Denmark gets more overnight stays from tourists than any of its Nordic neighbours, largely because of the high number of German and Dutch tourists that arrive over land. Last year was an impressive year for tourism in Denmark with 62.7 million overnight stays registered, up nearly 22 percent from 2021 and around 12 percent compared to pre-pandemic numbers — and 2023 is already expected to top that.

But the largest proportion of summer tourists in Denmark are Danes themselves, and some who previously booked their holidays in southern Europe now say they are more likely to stay home next year after experiencing heat stress. 

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“The World Tourism Organization forecasts that tourism in general will grow and Denmark will have its share, which is supported by tourism organizations like Wonderful Copenhagen and VisitDenmark,” Jane Widtfeldt Meged, a tourism researcher and Associate Professor, at Roskilde University, told The Local.

“The impact of climate change on tourism is very obvious this summer, and it is very likely that it will make people change travel patterns in a way that will benefit Danish tourism,” she said.

Positives of more tourism in Denmark

Denmark offers well-resourced cities and islands to explore as well as beaches, marinas, and forested national parks. Anyone who has spent a summer in Denmark likely knows about the popularity of sommerhus, summerhouses near the coast where 42 percent of all tourists, including Danes, spend their holidays. Camping is also popular, capturing 23 percent of overnight stays.

“Tourism is an important source of revenue and income in rural and coastal destinations as well the big cities, and it is growing in importance,” Meged said.

“However, tourism draws on common resources shared by the locals. If the locals are not happy or they suffer from negative consequences of tourism, it is a sign of overtourism, which of course isn’t sustainable,” the researcher said.

A VisitDenmark survey suggests that so far, locals are happy with the current levels of tourism: eight out of 10 Danes in both 2021 and 2022 said they think tourism has more positive than negative consequences for Denmark, especially for tourism’s contribution to the local economy and the atmosphere in local areas. 

The commercial benefits of tourism are likely to increase. Though the last figures available for the percentage of Danish GDP made up by tourism are from 2020, tourism in Denmark accounted for 118.2 billion kroner of revenue in 2021.

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Drawbacks of more tourism in Denmark

Overall, 80 percent of overnight stays in Denmark in 2022 were for coastal and nature tourism (big cities took only 11 percent), including at summerhouses and camping sites. Given that countries like Thailand have closed beaches due to tourism’s impact on local nature, it’s important to ask: Will higher levels of both domestic and foreign tourism endanger Denmark’s nature too?

Meged says there are already symptoms of overtourism in Denmark — but that they’re more likely to hit the cities rather than coastal areas.

“We have had tourists coming to our beautiful capital for decades, but the continually growing numbers are a threat to the equilibrium between the tourists and residents. During the busiest days of the high season, Copenhagen’s city centre is overcrowded around the highlights, and Residents' Associations complain about inconveniences brought on by tourists,” she said.

She suggests that one way to address these problems is to regulate the availability of accommodation, like in Barcelona, or to curb the arrival of cruise ships during the high season, like in Amsterdam

As for tourist impact on coastal ecosystems, there’s not much data. However, laws related to the summerhouse culture include tenets for environmental protection, including coastal zoning laws that prohibit construction too close to the coastline, first published in the 1970s.

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What the future holds

While climate change may bring near-term economic benefits from tourism, it also represents “the single greatest threat to development” according to Former Secretary General of the UN Ban Ki-Moon.

Heatwaves are only one of the consequences, and Denmark itself is no stranger to the financial cost of extreme weather events. 

“Tourism is not an environmentally sustainable activity, particularly if you go by plane,” says Meged. But there are ways to reconcile sustainable development with economic growth.

“Denmark should focus on domestic tourists and tourists from nearby countries, who also tend to stay for longer periods,” the tourism researcher said. She also notes that “lawmakers, the industry and the citizens must collaborate to conduct sustainable tourism environmentally, economically, socially, and politically.”

Though Copenhagen has given up on planned goals to become the world’s first carbon-neutral city by 2025, it is still considered one of the most sustainable cities.

VisitDenmark’s outreach efforts target 10 markets — Germany, Norway, Sweden, The Netherlands, the UK, the US, Italy, France, China, and India — which correspond to the nationalities with the highest number of tourists visiting Denmark. Of these, tourists from the first three are able to reach Denmark by train or ferry rather than car or plane, which both create significant greenhouse gas emissions per capita.

Sustainability also seems to be a reason why they choose to travel in Denmark in the first place: a 2022 VisitDenmark report on sustainable tourism suggests that high living standards, possibilities to cycle, and local food options are among the top sustainability factors that northern European tourists expect when visiting Denmark.

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