Danish tourism reinvents sustainable travel

Danish tourism reinvents sustainable travel

Jan Olsen, CEO, VisitDenmark, highlight’s Denmark’s distinctive tourism offerings and the country’s efforts to regrow and refocus the sector in the post-COVID era.


In what way is Denmark’s tourism offering unique?

Our food sector is quite attractive; we redefined Danish food and brought it to the international scene. Ten years ago, a lot of innovative chefs decided to create a movement to get Danish food and ingredients to the tables of the best restaurants. We were very satisfied when our restaurants Noma and Geranium were ranked number one and two of the top 50 in the world. We have a lot of Michelin stars in Copenhagen and Jutland. Because the wealth in the world is rising, we see a lot of high spenders coming to Denmark to explore the country and try the food. We are also one of the top users of bicycles in the world. In Copenhagen, bikes are used for 44 percent of commuting; we have bike lanes all over. Cyclists go from cities to suburbs. We have bridges all over exclusively for bikes. We have super bike lanes where one is allowed to go very fast. We also have what we call a bike snake, where bikes cross the harbor. There are special counters everywhere that tabulate how many bikes have passed on a given day. Next summer we will have the Tour de France starting from Denmark. It will be here for three days, which will be fantastic. It will be seen in 190 countries throughout the world. People also come because of our designs, buildings and furniture that incorporate simplicity. We do not have overdone apartments or hotels and have been quite successful in this fashion.

Our food, design and infrastructure are all signs of our unique innovativeness. Copenhagen has been rebuilt a lot over the last 10 years. One can now swim in the harbor on a break from the office. There are saunas one can use in the wintertime to get a little heat and relaxation before going back to work. There are four new areas in Copenhagen built primarily in the harbor area. We are transforming the old industrial harbor into a lively modern-day district. We even have an artificial ski slope and recreational hiking area. We have only 5.8 million people and a long coastline with a lot of space. There are many cottage houses you can rent where you can be in your own bubble with your family instead of hitting urban centers. One can stay in Copenhagen, but the city has easy to access the countryside. Wherever you are in Denmark, you are not more than 32 miles from the beach.


What efforts has VisitDenmark made to streamline the tourism sector and its marketing?

We have just revamped the tourism structure in the country. Earlier we had approximately 80 tourism companies in Denmark, one in each community. Now we have 19 combined destinations in geographical areas. We are trying to figure out which new destination companies handle what and give Denmark one voice and one brand. For example, we made a new slogan two years ago, The land of everyday wonder. The idea is to use this super-brand to persuade people rather than trying to create 19 super brands around the world. When you are a small country, it is important you stand together in the industry. We have seven themes we are working on in the areas of food, nature and culture. We have a Danish name, hygge, or coziness in English. It has to do with the way we live together or the way that we invite our friends over, light candles and share this cozy feeling. We try to educate people on what coziness feels and looks like. We have our coastline, which is primarily used by the Germans and the Dutch and in some parts the Swedish. We have our creativity, fashion industry and architecture. We have Arne Jacobsen, Finn Juhl and Poul Kjærholm. Small is beautiful, and we are a small country. Particularly so when compared to the U.S.


How has Denmark’s tourism sector been able to overcome challenges thrown down by the COVID-19 pandemic?

The government is a very important player in the northern part of Europe. For the first time in history, they decided to shut down the sector and send hospitality people home. They put out a safety net for the industry and workers were compensated. We normally run our communications and marketing for Denmark internationally but were asked to provide communications inside Denmark to get locals to use the industry and stay at hotels instead of flying to other countries or sitting at home.  When the industry reopened in 2020, it was supported by Danes. We ran a massive campaign to persuade citizens that there were many things in Denmark they did not know existed and places where they could spend a lovely holiday. Our slogan for this campaign could be translated as More Than Just Denmark. We succeeded in having 65 percent of all Danes staying inside the country and using the holiday houses, hotels and boutique hotels alongside German tourists. We only had about an 8 percent decrease in bed nights compared to 2019. While having restaurants and hotels closed was damaging for the tourism industry, the rest of the year was fine. Spending has increased.

2021 has been a better year than expected, yet still low compared to 2019. 2019 was the sixth year in a row in which we strengthened economic returns in tourism, with the sector taking up 4.2% of the national gross domestic product. Employment numbers reached 171,000 employees. In the beginning the Danish tourism strategy was based on assumptions. We changed the strategy 10 years ago to reframe the sector as an up-and-coming business industry. The sector is expected to continue expanding beyond the COVID-19 crisis, although we do not know how long it will take. Daily average spending comes mainly from big cities, such as Copenhagen, Aarhus, Odense and Aalborg. 2021 was a much better year than the last, primarily due to the Germans, which is our largest market for tourism in Denmark. The 4,500-mile coastline on the west coast makes up the main part of this kind of tourism. Cottage or holiday houses supported 16.8 million bed nights in 2019 from the German market alone. Previously, our product offering on the coast was outdated. We brought together the tourism sector to renew the holiday houses, which saw a rise of approximately three million bed nights more in the last three years. The problem with coastal tourism is that capacity in the summer period is limited because it is sold out. Our coastal product is extremely positive for Denmark’s tourism sector.

The country now has a year-round tourism industry.  Copenhagen has been a year-round destination for years due to robust connectivity and the Copenhagen airport, with a peak in the summertime. We have seen a huge increase in the last 10 years in international travel, which has had a large impact on society. If the tourism sector is not running all year round, you need to rely on seasonal employees, which makes it difficult to maintain an elevated level of service. As is the case all over the world, people are seeking out capitals and big cities, which means small villages on the coast are being shut down. The only way to keep them running is through tourism and year-round jobs. We have been successful in persuading politicians that tourism is for more than just amusement.

We expect that Danish tourism will have completely recovered at the beginning of 2024. We are one of the few countries in Europe that has full vaccination rates of 80 percent. If we can manage to convince the rest of the people in Denmark to get vaccinated, it will be easy to get through the winter. Demand for stays in Copenhagen has been positive. We have more bookings in Denmark for the summer than we had in the same time period in 2019. While we are aware there are still problems, the way we handled the pandemic in Denmark has been talked about in Europe. I hope this will help attract more visitors. The French market, for example, only currently consumes about 360,000 bed nights, but rates are rising because they can come by car.


How important is the idea of sustainability in attracting visitors to Denmark?

For the last three years, we have asked foreign tourists for their opinion about the importance of sustainability regarding their holidays. More and more believe that sustainability and environmental considerations play a significant role in choosing to come to Denmark. The Germans are especially aware of it. There is a huge movement in their country around handling waste removal and buying sustainable solutions and products. There is now pressure to provide electric charging points in cottages. If we do not have them, they will not visit us. We also employ sustainable building materials and other elements in our buildings, which is ingrained in how Danish society works. In 2019 we were certified by the Green Tourism Organization, one of the few to achieve this accolade. Next year, we will have a new national strategy for 2030.
One of our most important goals is to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by at least 70 percent. As a national tourism organization, we are asked to work together with the other national tourism organizations to develop projects to reduce emissions. One of the first things we are doing is developing a model for calculating the carbon footprint of tourism in the country. We are also helping the industry with the certification process. Sustainability is prevalent in our marketing; however, we do not want to greenwash. We send a clear message regarding our sustainable products, restaurants and accommodations. We are concrete about the evidence, and we prefer demonstrations rather than word of mouth. Many international journalists have visited Denmark within the last three years and talked about our restaurants, buildings, food producers, food waste procedures and other various sustainable solutions.


How has VisitDenmark leveraged new digital technologies to bolster its offerings?

We collect and use data when making all decisions. We are currently trying to build economic models to predict the amounts of tourists coming the following year. We are looking into new sources, such as credit cards, mobility within the country and spending habits. We are also looking at telecom data to see how long visitors stay, where they are going and where they are coming from. We gather these new data sets so that the tourism industry can figure out who does what and when. It is extremely difficult. We have been working on the project for two years. Additionally, around 60 or 70 percent of our international spending is on a digital platform, which is a challenge. If other parts of Denmark are spending money at the same time, we are interfering with each other. Before we were buying classified ads in travel magazines, which was easier to manage. However, this is not the case when using digital platforms. It demands a new setup, and we are currently working on one strong centralized framework.


What markets is VisitDenmark currently targeting to attract visitors?

As part of the ministry’s strategy, we have some 10 priority countries we are allowed to work on. We are trying to centralize the small amount of money we have. In 2021 and 2020 we primarily focused on Norway, Sweden, U.K., France, Italy and Germany. We designed a new monitoring system called The Travel Indicator that measures flights, hotel bookings and digital searches for Denmark. We are trying to be proactive on social media and spent a year and a half working on this. The advantage of this strategy was that when Europe was opening last summer, we were ready. We started exactly one day after Germans were allowed to enter Denmark again. The U.S. and U.K. markets are also extremely important for Copenhagen because the Copenhagen airport is a hub. We also have more than 300 cruise ships coming here. Turnover from cruise ship passengers is very important for the hotel sector in Copenhagen. However, cruise ship tourism has sustainability and profitability issues. Spending is not high because packages tend to be all-inclusive. That said, it is very good for the transportation sector, for the ports and raising the awareness of the country.