A Short History of Tourism in Norway

A Short History of Tourism in Norway

It was almost only foreigners who went on Norwegian holidays in the childhood of tourism. In some places it is still possible to sense a little of the atmosphere that met them. Read this exciting short history of tourism in Norway.

The travel agency Thomas Cook created the Discovery Route as the very first package holidays to be sold in Fjord Norway. Horse and carriage on land and steamboats on the fjords and the inland lakes was the means of the first explorers. The famous traveler, explorer and writer E. J. Goodman travelled the route in the 1890s and called it “The Best Tour of Norway”.

Spectacular nature with high mountains, narrow fjords, skiing and midnight sun attracted the very first tourists to Norway, mostly wealthy Englishmen who came to Norway for climbing and walking in the mountains, to see the fjords and waterfalls and later for fishing and hunting.

A Short History of Tourism in Norway
Nærøyfjord. Photo: Terese Kvinge / Fjord Travel Norway

The beauty of Norway
This made Norway more and more famous for its beautiful landscapes and nature and had a great impact on the attitude of the Norwegians towards the beauty of their country. Hotels were constructed, first in the fjord regions and later in the mountains.

Related: Cruising the Fjords in Norway

Few cared about Christiania (Oslo) and Bergen was just a transit ground. A time travel back to the first tourist destinations takes present days’ tourists to sceneries that have changed little in 100 years. At that time, however, there were no hotels. The travelers stayed at coaching inns and at the rectories. In the 1880s, the tourism industry had grown and you could find several venerable hotels in smaller villages, mainly in Swiss style. Tourists were now curious to experience the great nature, salmon fishing and the midnight sun in Norway.

A Short History of Tourism in Norway
The travel agency Thomas Cook created the Discovery Route as the very first package holidays to be sold in Fjord Norway. Photo: Ryfylkemuseet

British explorer E. J. Goodman on the Norwegian Discovery route
Experiences and recreation in the Norwegian nature has traditionally been the most important reasons why foreign tourists travel to Norway. Tourists do not come to Norway to experience sun and warmth. People from regions of big cities wish in a growing extend to experience something different. Fresh air, clear water and virgin nature have a great value for many people. Furthermore, there are the special nature-experiences which attract tourist to travel to a place where mass tourism has not broken out yet.

A Short History of Tourism in Norway
Painting from Balestrand by Hans F. Gude

One of the most visited places in the childhood of tourism was Balestrand by the Sognefjord. Maybe the light there attracted the visitors. When the sun rays break through the clouds, they create an almost magical light.

Related: New Attraction in Norway – The Whale

E. J. Goodman describes the route from Stavanger to Bergen in great detail. He travelled by steamer from Stavanger to Sand, from there with horse and carriage to Suldalsosen where there were two hotels at the time. The travel went on by the small steamboat MS Sulldalsdampen on the inland lake Suldalsvatnet to Nesflaten which had three hotels. From there with horse and carriage through the famous Bratlandsdalen to Røldal and Odda. The road though the valley of Bratlandsdalen opened in 1890. Before that the travelers had to walk through the valley.

A Short History of Tourism in Norway
Emperor Wilhelm II visited Norway for the first time in 1889. Here a picture from 1905. Photo: Wikiwand

Emperor Wilhelm II’s annual holidays in Norway
In Germany Norway became popular because of the annual holidays in Norway of emperor Wilhelm II. He was very enthusiastic about Norway and the nature. Emperor Wilhelm II visited Norway for the first time in 1889. Until 1914 he was here almost every summer. He traveled with his own ship, the Hohenzollen, but in the entourage there were usually two or three warships. In 1914, the emperor stayed in Balestrand when he learned that World War I was inevitable.

English middle-class discovers Norway
Late in the 19th century the English middle class also started coming. Besides the Englishmen there were also travellers from Germany and other European countries. Many tourists wrote about the beautiful Norwegian landscape, especially about the mountains, fjords and waterfalls which contributed to the popularity of Norway as a romantic travel destination.

A Short History of Tourism in Norway
From Odda. Photo: Fjords.com

Odda was the center of tourism in Fjord Norway at this time. There were 12 hotels in different sizes, with the flag ship; Hotel Hardanger being the biggest hotel and wooden building in Norway at the time. 70 – 80 cruise ships visited Odda every summer, and from 1861 there were steamboat routes going from Bergen to Odda and Stavanger to Odda. According to E. J. Goodman, the steamboat trip from Bergen to Odda took 13 hours.

Not impressed by Norwegian cuisine and sanitary conditions
According to some, the Norwegian cuisine was not very impressive at the time. “The food is miserable, and consist mostly of flatbread and porridge,” wrote the British minister Frederick Metcalfe after his first trip to Norway in the 1850s.

A Short History of Tourism in Norway
Norweigian waffles with strawberry jam and sour cream. Photo: Jernia

Nor the German-Norwegian Doctor Ferdinand Scarlett was impressed with Norwegian sanitary conditions for tourists.

“The most magnificent natural scenery or the most glorious climate cannot offset such abominable conditions. Away with the filth,” he wrote.

Paintings functioned like today’s social media
However, famous Norwegian painters came to Balestrand to find scenery for their paintings. Among them were Hans Dahl, Thomas Fearnley, Hans F. Gude and Johannes Flintoe. The paintings functioned like today’s social media and some of them were bought by wealthy art collectors in England, Germany and France. Norway was suddenly considered an interesting but exotic hook of the civilized world.

A Short History of Tourism in Norway
Sandy beach near Mandal. Photo: Wikipedia

The very first advertisement for Norway was produced by the Norwegian railway, NSB, in 1905 and illustrated the midnight sun, Norwegian mountains and a stave church. The national romantic image of Norway was soon noticed abroad.

Related: Perceptions of Norway as a Holiday Destination

Mass-tourism slowly taking place
But Norway didn’t become a country for mass tourism after the second world war and the beginning of mass tourism. This form of tourism focused on the southern periphery of Europe. And it was not expected that Norway was going to be a land for mass tourism. In view of the climate of the country, the lack of sandy beaches – there are only a few near Mandal at the Stavanger coast and in the southwest of Stavanger which are touristically developed – and of course the high prices for services of all kinds, Norway was more a country for individualism.

But in the time when car and plane became mass transportations, Norway experienced a real annual “invasion” of foreign tourists. In 1965 more than 5 million tourists visited Norway, tourists, which brought ca. 750 million NOK in the country. Numerical on top were Scandinavians (2,9 mill.) However, the Swedish car-tourist comes mainly for camping, and the Danes for skiing during the winter.

A Short History of Tourism in Norway
Aksel Lund Svindal alpine skiing. Photo: Visit Norway

Skiing is the national sport in Norway and became popular because of among others explorer Fridtjof Nansen from this time. The mountain hotels had a second season due to the winter sport while the hotels near the fjords had the problem of only a short period during the summer.  Most of the bigger hotels are in the mountains of Østlandet.

Improving traditional tourism products
Although nature is still Norway’s key selling point to foreigners, a lot has changed in how Norway is marketed abroad. Whereas the typical tourist used to be a passive observer of nature, today’s travelers want experiences that make them connect with nature, including domestic culinary dishes, historical destinations, Scandinavian interior design and art.

According to an international trend, the sector of city trips and event-tourism is growing and the aim of the Norwegian Tourist Board is to improve the traditional tourism products and at the same time develop the sector of events and new holiday activities.

A new Discovery Route was launched in 2013. Now it is time to bring back the success of the former destinations and invite new visitors to travel in the footprints of the pioneers from the 1880s in a much more comfortable and updated way.

Feature image (on top): From the Discovery Route

A Short History of Tourism in Norway, written by Tor Kjolberg

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Journalist, PR and marketing consultant Tor Kjolberg has several degrees in marketing management. He started out as a marketing manager in Scandinavian companies and his last engagement before going solo was as director in one of Norway’s largest corporations. Tor realized early on that writing engaging stories was more efficient and far cheaper than paying for ads. He wrote hundreds of articles on products and services offered by the companies he worked for. Thus, he was attuned to the fact that storytelling was his passion.