5 mins

Reinventing Scandinavian Mountains

Jan Edøy 
 Erik Hagen

Em pirical evidence for Territorial Agenda 2030, Pilot Action: Small places matter

Scandinavian mountainous areas have seen population decline over a number of years, as is the case for many European mountainous regions and rural areas. Yet some local communities have set out to define and pursue for themselves another development path.

As the EU and partner countries have reviewed their policies to promote a more sustainable, territorially balanced and place-based development, through both the adopted Territorial Agenda 2030?A future for all places and the forthcoming communication on the long-term vision for rural areas, This bottom-up initiated local project will be promoted as part of the empirical evidence for the Norwegian-led Territorial Agenda 2030 pilot action ?Small places matter ?.

“four adjacent Scandinavian municipalit ies have found means to break the vicious circle of rural decline. Joining forces, they reinvented their role and posit ion within a subst ant ially larger t errit ory.”

Winter tourism was introduced in Scandinavia at Sälenin Sweden in the 1930s and across the border in Trysil in Norway in the 1960s. Forestry and sawmills were historically the major sources of employment in the region, but the mechanisation of logging led to a crisis in the economy during the 1950s and 1960s. The crisis led to a search for new employment and business possibilities. Experimentation started with winches pulling skiers uphill, and they could then enjoy the downhill ride. On the Swedish side of the border, owners of a large construction firm were important innovators in the early phase. They developed Lindvallen inSälenas a place where their employees could spend their holidays. On the Norwegian side, a few forest owners were the leading entrepreneurs.

The two places emerged as destinations for ski-based tourism, with ski slopes, lifts, cabins and restaurants, located just across the border from each other, but with little cross-border cooperation until 2005. There was then an initiative to organise a project within the Interreg Sweden-Norway programme to reduce energy consumption on both sides of the border. The project resulted in considerable energy savings by the participants, including hotels and the operators of ski slopes. In addition, firms learned the benefits of sharing their experiences across the border on issues that had been business secrets, such as the technicalities of producing snow.

In Trysil, Danish tourists enjoying their winter holidays emerged as an important market, in addition to Norwegians from the Greater Oslo region. In Sälen, the growth in customers was not satisfactory because of the long drive from Stockholm. In 2008, an owner of a restaurant in Sälenintroduced the idea of constructing an airport to attract more Swedish and European visitors. His idea gained support, but it was ambitious to construct an airport in a region with only 25 000 inhabitants. The future of the idea depended on cooperation between politicians and businesses in four SITE municipalities. The politicians agreed on a common vision of constructing an internationally leading cross-border tourist destination: Scandinavian Mountains. The airport was necessary to make this vision a reality. The plans for an airport matured, Swedish authorities granted the necessary permissions and, when a combination of private and public funding was secured, construction started in 2016.

There was a shared understanding that constructing an airport was, in itself, not enough to create a leading destination. A programme backed by Interreg Sweden-Norway funding was set up to prepare for international visitors. Small businesses offering dog sledging, elk safaris and skidoo trips were among those targeted. An environmental audit scheme was introduced to reduce negative environmental impacts. New infrastructure including roads, water supply and waste treatment was a necessary part of the planning for more visitors.

In 2019, there was an expectation that the Scandinavian Mountains Airport, together with the upgrading of a wide range of services for visitors, would result in prosperity, and a lack of qualified labour was depicted as a problem. Then the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in March 2020 and the area suddenly faced new challenges.

“The populat ion in the region quadrupled during the high season for t ourism. The local economy was boost ed for some years and the population in the region increased for the first time in more than 60 years.”

Nevertheless, in the long-term perspective, the SITE region has achieved something that is in fact rather extraordinary. Over the years, this thinly populated rural border region has created a new industrial path. A new industry has been created without the benefits of being related to existing industrial activity in the region, something that is rather unique. The SITE region was a pioneer in winter tourism in Scandinavia, with no other destinations to learn from in the early phases of creating the new path. The entrepreneurs were locally embedded, and used specialised local competences, such as producing snow, preparing slopes and packaging 'of products for different markets.

Today, challenges to diversify the economy to become less dependent on tourism have emerged in the aftermath of COVID-19 hitting the tourism sector hard. Needless to point out, there is no?quick fix?to this problem, but various tools are available, and future success is dependent on how they are combined and used.

Altogether, we note that the boom or gloom of small places is high up in the European political agenda, driven by major issues such as social and economic equality, new patterns of work and leisure in an increasingly digital world, and a green economic paradigm in the making. However, to benefit from these structural dynamics, places such as the SITE region will be dependent on their permanent ability to reinvent their role and position within a wider territory, supported by other tiers of government. Policymakers at all administrative levels must strengthen their ambitions and commitment to a successful implementation of the Territorial Agenda 2030 to deliver results in both the shorter and longer terms for all small places and territories in Europe.

Jan Edøy is Special Adviser in the Department of regional policy Norwegian Ministry of Local Government and Modernisation  Erik Hagen is ESPON Contact Point Norway Bjørn Terje Andersen and Bjørnar Sæther also contributed to this article

This article appears in Rural areas: an eye to the future

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