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Sustainable Tourism Case Study: Bergen, Norway

View of Bergen

Tourism is understandably on the front line of many arguments about climate change and sustainability. Often involving air travel, as well as high levels of food and energy waste, tourism can be a major contributor to carbon emissions and pollution in a region. Yet the West’s demand for the perfect tourist experience is ever-increasing, especially as social media highlights previously unknown destinations. Many people also felt an increased desire to travel more and further afield following the restrictions of COVID-19 lockdowns. So, is there a way for tourist destinations to welcome high numbers of visitors sustainably and with minimal impact on the environment? Bergen in Norway thinks sustainable tourism is possible and is determined to make the region as sustainable as possible.

Getting to Bergen

Bergen in western Norway attracts over 2.7 million visitors each year as a result of its scenery, culture and history. It is a World Heritage City and incorporates the historic UNESCO World Heritage site of Bryggen. This row of Medieval Hanseatic commercial buildings have been on the UNESCO list since 1979 and are a big tourist draw. Norway’s scenery is another huge attraction. The city is often referred to as the gateway to the fjords, with some of the country’s finest examples within easy reach. Bergen is also increasingly important as a conference and convention venue, and a large number of hotels in the city cater for meetings of all sizes.

Bryggen Bergen
The Bryggen area of Bergen is a UNESCO World Heritage Site

For most people, getting to Bergen will involve air travel. Air travel contributes around 2.5% of global carbon emissions and 3.5% towards global warming in total through other complex processes. While this doesn’t sound like a lot, the lack of progress in decarbonising aviation continues to make it a controversial form of transport. For those unwilling to forego air travel, however, there are some signs of change. Norwegian air carrier Widerøe covers a number of routes between the UK and Bergen. They won the title of Eco-airline of the year in 2022 due to their commitment to introducing electric planes in the near future. Although these will almost certainly be solely on domestic routes to start with, the ultimate aim is to use them across their fleet. Scandinavian Airlines, or SAS, are also committed to introducing fully electric and sustainably fuelled flights soon.

Local Transport

Possibly Bergen’s biggest claim to sustainability is the range of public transport options available once you have arrived in the city. All public transport in the county of Vestland, in which Bergen sits, is run by the local council under the operating name of Skyss. This includes the Bergen Light Rail, or Bybanen, which has linked the airport to the centre of town since 2017. The journey takes around 40 minutes and is frequent, with departures every 10 to 15 minutes. Single tickets cost the equivalent of about £3 depending on the exchange rate of the day. This price compares extremely favourably to many airport links in the UK such as the Edinburgh tram system and Heathrow Express. Tickets are now paperless, too. They are either stored on the debit or credit card used at one of the many vending machines or via an easy to download app.

Sustainable tourism Bergen Light rail
Bergen’s Light Rail connects the airport and city centre

It isn’t just the light rail system, however, that makes using public transport an attractive option. Skyss operate a huge number of buses in the region meaning that visitors can reach many places without needing to hire a car. Because Bergen sits in an area of intricate fjords, there are also ferry options which cut down travel times considerably. These are all now electric. Light rail, bus and ferry tickets can all be bought singly via machines or the app. There is also a seven-day ticket covering most transport routes in the area. This is an extremely economical option, costing the equivalent of around £17 or £18 for a week’s unlimited travel in Zone A, which includes places up to an hour away. The world famous Bergensbanen train between Bergen and Oslo is also incredibly good value compared to UK rail prices. By making public transport affordable, Bergen has ensured it is a viable option for visitors and locals alike.

Sustainable tourism Bergen ferry
All of Bergen’s local ferries are electric

Good public transport doesn’t just remove cars from the road. Since 2020, all Bergen’s buses have been running on biofuels or electric. This, along with the many tour buses and taxis (not to mention more than 37% of locals’ cars) also running electrically has improved air quality greatly. Some of the local fjord tour operators have also invested heavily in sustainably fuelled engines. And the city promotes walking and cycling to tourists and locals as well. There are many hiking routes within and around the region, all extremely well waymarked by the national hiking association, the DNT. In spring 2023, the city opened the longest purpose-built cycle tunnel in the world, measuring 2.9 kilometres.

Walking routes
Walking routes in Norway are extensively waymarked

Green Certification

Another way Bergen helps visitors travel more sustainably is by highlighting greener businesses and activities. The Green Travel logo is a Norwegian initiative that indicates when a tourist facility has met a set of strict environmental criteria. These criteria include how much waste they produce and how they deal with it, as well as energy and chemical use. Where food is involved, the emphasis is on using local produce. One important thing to note, however, is that whale meat is still sold in Norway, both in supermarkets and restaurants. Whale and Dolphin Conservation advises how to avoid supporting the whaling industry when visiting. For some, though, the fact Norway continues whaling understandably means choosing not to visit the country.

Norway’s Green Travel logo is a useful sustainable tourism pointer

Bergen has almost 100 businesses classed as eco-friendly under the certification system. Restaurants, hotels, museums, tours, activities and even local taxi firms have been awarded the logo. They include the city’s science and textile industry museums and the popular Fløibanen funicular. The range of businesses covered means that visitors can make an informed choice about just about every aspect of their visit when it comes to sustainability.

The views from the top of the Fløyen funicular are stunning

Bergen’s commitment to improving its sustainability as a destination has paid off. The Global Destination Sustainability Index (GDS-index) for 2023 positioned Bergen fifth in the world as a sustainable tourist and conference destination. It is also the only major city in Norway to be given Innovation Norway’s Sustainable Destinations label. Much of this recognition is down to green transport provision. And as a popular cruise ship port, the city provides renewable energy for up to three docked cruise ships at once via its onshore power hub. This means ships can turn their engines off while docked. The city has committed to reducing its emissions more generally, as well. By 2030 it wants to reduce direct greenhouse gas emissions by 30% compared to 1991. It also aims to reduce its overall emissions by 85% by the same year when compared with 2009.

Sustainable tourism Electric chargers
High levels of electric vehicle use have helped with emissions and pollution

Sustainable Tourism Lessons

While sustainable tourism is something of an oxymoron (all tourism, after all, produces yet more carbon emissions and waste), each of us will have our own criteria for judging how eco-friendly a destination is. As such, there are certainly arguments against visiting Bergen. These include the fact most of us would still have to fly to get there and Norway’s continued commitment to whaling.

Bergen has many lessons for those looking to make tourism greener

The region shows, though, that while tourism, by its very nature, can never be 100% sustainable, there are ways to make it much greener. It has one of the highest proportions of eco-friendly hotels in the world, efficient, regular and affordable public transport and a commitment to local produce. Consequently, Bergen is full of learning opportunities for those wanting to make the tourist industry more sustainable elsewhere.