Scandinavia is having a moment as European travelers seek ‘coolcations’ to beat the heat

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Planning his graduation trip to Europe, Jaeger Lajewski pondered Italy’s renaissance buildings and Greece’s ancient monuments. But with those places now even hotter and more humid than his native New Jersey, he went for less traditional Scandinavia. 

“We wanted to go somewhere a little bit cooler and more temperate,” the architecture graduate from University of Virginia says while milling around the ferries that take tourists out to the Stockholm archipelago. “Going to Italy, Greece or Croatia would have been really, really hot as well. And we wanted to see something different. We haven’t really explored this region of Europe before.” 

From wildfires to extreme heat, global warming has created new threats to Europe’s top summer destinations. This past May marked the 12th-consecutive month of record-breaking temperatures for the planet, with the global average 1.52C higher than pre-industrial levels. Already this year Greece has been forced to close its famous Acropolis during the hottest parts of the day to keep tourists safe from deadly heat. 

Lajewski and his friends aren’t the only ones to forego endless sun in southern Europe for cooler weather up north. It’s a trend that’s become so popular there’s now a name for it, “coolcationing,” promoted by lifestyle magazines and marketers around the world. Vacationers seeking respite from unbearable heat have the potential to bolster Scandinavia’s travel and tourism industry, which added an estimated $124 billion to the regional economy in 2023, up about 6% from the year before.  

The Nordic businesses that spoke with Bloomberg — from tour operators to gift shops — predict this could be a bumper year. Scandinavia is “having a moment” with a 27% rise in bookings compared to last summer, says Misty Belles, spokeswoman for Virtuoso, a network for some 20,000 luxury travel advisers. Sweden, alone, has seen a 47% bump, she says. Italy, by contrast, is only up 3%. Flight searches from UK airports to Copenhagen, Bergen, Norway and Stockholm for this summer are also up by double-digit percentages, according to travel search engine KAYAK.

Research commissioned by the European Union shows that a warming world has the potential to create a tectonic shift in travel on the continent. In its most alarming scenario, where global average temperatures increase by 4C, Greece could see tourism demand slump by more than 7%, compared with 2019. By the same account, Sweden, Denmark and Finland would see demand rise by more than 6%.

While Scandinavia isn’t totally immune to the extreme weather brought on by global warming, debilitating heat waves are still very rare. Temperatures tend to be at least 10C (18F) below southern Europe and a cool breeze is more typical than the choking humidity familiar further south. 

That’s conducive for the wide range of activities on offer. While it’s perfectly possible to spend a week chilling on the beach in Denmark (the best ones are rivaling those in the Mediterranean), more foreigners come for the hiking, reindeers and northern lights. Or to explore the trendy art, design and culture scenes in Oslo, Stockholm and Copenhagen. Winter tourism is also getting a boost because of the lack of snow in the Alps, with resorts upgrading to meet the standards of an international clientele. 

Still, it is a disturbing reality that climate change is impacting a time of the year many people hope to switch off from life’s stresses. A VisitDenmark survey among more than 9,000 people across seven European countries found that almost half had experienced extreme weather on their holidays last year, including heat waves. Two thirds said they will change their behavior as a result. This could mean booking trips at other times of the year or closer to departure, as well as picking other destinations or even limiting traveling abroad. 

At Copenhagen’s Tivoli amusement park, which opened in 1843 and still sports a roller coaster made of wood, staff say they have seen a change in the usual mix of visitors from nearby Sweden or Norway. More guests from southern Europe, Latin America, the US, UK and Asia are entering through the gates. 

Among those taking in the sights and rides at Tivoli, was a group of tourists from New Delhi. They booked their holiday in early June, when the weather in Copenhagen was mixed, with temperatures between 10C and 20C.

“We live in heat, we live in so much sun, so we wanted some colder weather,” says Rishi Khan, a textile merchant. “Back home it’s 50 degrees [Celsius]. One day it even reached 52, so we decided to come to Europe to experience cooler temperatures…Denmark was a good choice.”

Over in Stockholm, foreign languages could be heard all around the main tourist hotspots on one sunny morning in late June. English, Spanish, German and French speakers chatted as they meandered through the narrow alleyways of the oldest part of the city dating back to the Middle Ages. Outside the palace, home of the Swedish monarch, a group of Brazilian teenagers were watching a Royal Guards parade with horses and music. 

Climate change isn’t the full story behind Scandinavia’s tourism uptick. Currency depreciation in Norway and Sweden have made those countries more attractive to foreigners. The region is also in many ways benefiting from a rising tide in post-Covid travel around the world. And southern Europe is still attracting more travelers this summer — despite the risks extreme temperatures pose to the human body. The heat-related death of British celebrity doctor Michael Mosley on the Greek island of Symi in early June made grim headlines, but tourists are continuing to flood Athens airport. 

Nordic tourism agencies are keen to pitch their region as a place where travelers can safely explore the great outdoors in the middle of summer. “When you have these heat waves on the continent, the playgrounds are too hot for children to play, attractions are closed and you end up having to stay indoors most of the time,” says Nina Kjonigsen, a spokeswoman for Visit Norway. “People want to be outside during summer and enjoy themselves — to bike, hike, eat, play — so more people are starting to look toward the north.”

At the Aker Brygge harbour in Oslo, a family of four from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, is relaxing on a bench. The sun is out and at 26C, it’s unusually warm. The kids ask for sunblock from their mother, Sara Batterjee, an interior designer. The family usually goes to southern or central Europe for their summer holidays, Batterjee says, but after getting increasingly concerned by extreme weather, they headed to the Nordics for the first time. 

“We came for the amazing scenery, and of course for the weather,” she says. “We went to Switzerland last summer, we had a lot of fun, but it was too hot. So we thought let’s go a bit north to explore more pleasant weather.”

As 2024 is on track to be the hottest year on record, Batterjee says the warmer weather will impact how they travel in the future. “We will come back to Norway, for sure,” she says. “Now we are trying to find the best route, flying from Jeddah.”

Even on the Nordic periphery, in the far north of the Atlantic, Iceland is benefiting from a 49% increase in bookings this summer, according to Virtuoso. Cruise ships are making more frequent stops on routes between Canada, Greenland and Norway, giving a jolt to the local economy, says Johanna Carlsen, who runs the office for Gateway to Iceland. 

“I have also driven many people as a taxi driver who are fleeing the hot climate at home,” says Carlsen. “There is a great increase from South America and the hotter states of the US.”

Bangladeshi-born Shakhawat Hossain agrees. His tourist store in Stockholm’s old town sells everything from hoodies and caps to fridge magnets and cups. He’s run the shop for 10 years and says that business is booming again, largely due to more foreign tourists after a Covid plunge. He expects sales to jump about 15% this summer from last year. 

A few doors down is a Swedish handicraft store. Sales assistant Nour, who didn’t want to give his surname, says that the peak season started much earlier this year, with a lot of tourists from abroad. The boom began with Americans heading over to see Taylor Swift and hasn’t stopped. The pop star held three concerts on May 17-19 in Stockholm as part of the European leg of The Eras Tour.

To be sure, coolcations may be a bit of a misnomer. After all, it can get beachy hot in Scandinavian cities in the summer. When Khan and his friends visited Tivoli, Copenhagen had its hottest day of the year with the mercury exceeding 30C. Also, climate change means average temperatures are rising everywhere — and this is especially true in latitudes furthest away from the equator, which are warming at the greatest rate. Meanwhile, global warming doesn’t just mean heat, but also increased risks for natural disasters like floods and wildfires.

Back in Stockholm, Kazu Hirano, a mechanical engineer from Japan, is admiring the view over the parliament building from the palace. He’s taking in the city for five days with his partner before flying south to the center of the European heat. The conference in Athens he was looking forward to attending no longer appeals.

“It’s going to be really hot!” he says. “I’m worried.”

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