Is Sweden the most Sustainable Travel Destination in the World?

The light blue sky, cloudless and warm, draws a perfect horizontal line against the intense-yellow land that stretches out as far as I can see. It’s late May, the time of year when the sun plants a big kiss on the fields of Skåne, the southern tip of Sweden.

Filed of yellow canola flowers with a blue sky in the background

Canola flower field. Credit: Miriam Preis/imagebank.sweden.se

I blink and find myself atop a cerulean canvas, riding on a white commuter boat, top heavy as the passengers lap up the sunshine and point to a few of the 30 000 forest-covered islands, rocky islets, and skerries, which define the Stockholm archipelago. Like scattered stardust, each island beckons, inviting me to explore the secrets of their rugged beauty.

Island in an archipelago with small red houses on island in foreground

Stockholm archipelago. Credit: Henrik Trygg/imagebank.sweden.se

I sit on the roof of Sweden, a glacier straddling our highest mountain, Kebnekaise, circa 2100 metres above sea level. The expansive tapestry, representing 11% of Sweden’s surface, is a dizzying array of peaks and valleys, snow and rock. The scene complements the howling wind, an ethereal soundtrack to the haunting north.

Individual climbing to peak of snow capped mountain

Kebnekaise – Swedens highest peak. Credit: Felix Oppenheim/Folio/imagebank.sweden.se

Three of my favourite touchdowns in Sweden’s exquisite and varied landscape. The sun coloured canola fields of Skåne, my birthplace. Stockholm, my home base. And Kebnekaise, my most epic trek and climb. Blessed by jaw-dropping environments and vast lands, nature runs through our DNA, sparking a countryside holiday house tradition, and a long-standing sustainability ethos. A pleasurable outdoor experience also means preserving it. Of course, sustainable practices start where you live, and it’s therefore not a surprise that Swedish cities like Malmö, Göteborg (Gothenburg), and Stockholm rank as some of the world’s most sustainable destinations, considering environmental and socio-cultural factors. Taken together, Sweden as a whole is a prime destination for sustainable travel and tourism, exemplified by the September edition of Euromonitor International index, where it took top honours.

As a Swede working in the global travel industry, with 15 years of experience in sustainability, I am mindful of the values and image my country communicates when it comes to making the tourism industry more responsible. To better understand the successful Sweden brand, Inspirit Journey turned to the foremost expert on the subject, Susanne Andersson, CEO at Visit Sweden, the official website for tourism and travel information. Read on to find out about the 2030 vision, which guides Susanne and her entire team.

Profile picture of Susanne Andersson

Susanne Andersson, CEO Visit Sweden: Credit: Jonas Borg

How did your own personal journey lead you to Visit Sweden?

I live with my family right outside Östersund, in the mid-north of Sweden, in a villa on the shore of Lake Storsjön. In addition, I like to spend time in our holiday home in Vemdalen in the Swedish mountains, or in the hunting grounds with our dogs.

I’ve spent my entire career in the service and hospitality industry, with involvement in a wide range of national business- and employer organisations. By nature, I’m a person who, through a large portion of positivity, links people together by creating a conducive climate for collaborations towards common goals.

I became the CEO of the state-owned marketing company, Visit Sweden, in February 2022, after a year as acting CEO and vice-chair of Visit Sweden’s board, as well as chairing the business interest organisation Swedish Tourism.

 

How do you pitch Sweden as a destination?

Sweden has a lot to offer. We are one of the countries in the world with most lakes, islands, and archipelagos, on both the east and west coast. Let’s not forget hotels in treetops, or those built out of ice. There are four distinct seasons with plenty of activities for families, friends, and couples. The nature is ever-present and accessible as we have the luxury of the freedom to roam principle. Our beautiful cities boast world-class culture and food, with plenty of cafés where you can enjoy Swedish Fika.

A tray of Cinnamon buns

A staple of Swedish Fika – Cinnamon buns. Credit: Lieselotte van der Meijs/imagebank.sweden.se

How popular is Sweden in terms of travel?

We are quite an unknown destination for many, but with that said there are lots of people with an interest to come to Sweden, 65 million to be exact, in Europe and US alone. The Northern Lights feature on people’s bucket lists and Sweden offers some of the best spots in the world to experience them. Aside from nature-based tourism, cultural activities are becoming more popular.

Northern Lights in intense-green light display among mountains

Northern Lights in the far north. Credit: Hjalmar Andersson/imagebank.sweden.se

What words do travellers associate with Sweden?

We have asked and some of the top ones are

  • Openness and freedom,

  • Unique and untouched nature,

  • A healthy way of living,

  • Safe and secure,

  • Good value for money,

  • Hospitality,

  • Great city experiences,

  • Modern, yet authentic,

  • Easy to travel to.

Woman getting climbing down to swim in the winter sea

Winter swimming – a Swedish tradition. Credit: Mikael Svensson/Johnér/imagebank.sweden.se

What’s next for Sweden in terms of advancing sustainable travel?

As a society, Sweden has for a long time worked with sustainability on all levels, which is reflected in the travel and tourism sector. It’s never finished, though, innovative countries can’t stand still. While Sweden does well in this arena, we can also do better in communicating the progress we have made.

Visit Sweden carries the official national assignment from the Swedish government to promote the country as a destination for more conscious travellers in pursuit of purposeful travels. It contributes to the governmental vision for Sweden to be the world’s most sustainable and attractive travel destination based on innovation by 2030.

Sweden is hosting the next Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) conference in Stockholm, April 2024. What are the key issues going to be?

The brand promise for the tourist destination of Sweden reads, “We are shaping the new era of purposeful travel”. Therefore, it is particularly gratifying that Sweden will organise GSTC’s world congress and give us the opportunity to inspire on an international arena.

In Sweden, there’s a growing interest in working according to set sustainability criteria, such as the GSTC’s. Several destinations like Järvsö, Västerbotten, Lappland, Skellefteå and Royal Djurgården already got to work on them. We hope this triggers additional places to adopt a more structured method in relation to sustainable development. A strong brand promise to global travellers contributes to Sweden’s overall long-term goals.

The three dimensions of ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance) will be the base topics for the conference. We aim to project a welcoming and inclusive approach to engage visitors, residents, businesses, and local society.

An old wooden ship on display in museum

The famous Vasa ship in Djurgården. Credit: Ola Ericson/imagebank.sweden.se

Is it demand from travellers or the industry’s own efforts that push the sustainable travel agenda in Sweden?

There is a general increased awareness and interest in sustainability, which concerns the whole industry. Travellers ask for sustainable alternatives and more information about how tour operators address this issue. Sweden’s hospitality industry is at the forefront compared to other industries, be it larger or smaller companies. Of course, we need continuous development by many actors to become both a competitive and sustainable destination. Our hospitality sector combines strong sustainability efforts with innovation to achieve the necessary transition.

Visit Sweden’s target audience is well matched with what we can offer as a sustainable destination with local and authentic immersion. Visitors have diverse interests and wish to do many things on a trip to Sweden. Therefore we are happy to have a broad range of seasons and geographical areas to satisfy all desires. The targeted group represents great potential for Swedish sustainable tourism, already curious about Sweden and the lifestyle.

With scorching heat across Europe, will Nordic countries see an influx of tourists?

The interest in Sweden as a travel destination is high and increasing. It is too early to tell the exact reason for the increased attention, for example, a post pandemic recovery, or specific factors, such as the cooler summer climate in the north of Europe.

We follow the official tourism statistics kept by Swedish authorities, which show a year-on-year increase of guest nights, while long-haul tourists have not yet found their way back to Sweden in the same numbers as pre-pandemic. The growth stems from domestic tourism, visitors from our Nordic neighbours, and from surrounding European countries.

What are some of your personal favourites for sustainable travel in Sweden?

An amazing thing with Sweden is that you can easily combine a city pulse with a nature experience. In that sense, I love all our cities. Take, for example, Gothenburg. Staying in one of the world’s most sustainable cities, you get great inner-city vibe and culture, plus the ability to fish for oysters on the adjacent coast, all in the same day. And that only represents a fraction of the different combinations available for spending a sustainable vacation in Sweden.

An old classic ship in a harbour with a high-rise in the background

Gothenburg – city and coast. Credit: Malin Skoog/imagebank.sweden.se

What is your most cherished travel memory, in or out of Sweden?

It’s in Sweden, when I, as a child, went to Vemdalen to ski. It is my fondest memory because it contained all the things I love; family, nature, exercise, food experiences and relaxation – all at the same time.

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Thank you, Susanne and Visit Sweden, for an enlightening discussion on how to work and think about destination branding in relation to sustainability. For Sweden, and any other destination around the world, this is essential to get right. Which, of course, means it has to be built on a solid foundation of credible and measurable progress. Only then will it resonate with conscious travellers looking for authentic experiences.

In my view, Visit Sweden has a modern approach to sustainable tourism, which implies an understanding that different verticals entices travellers, be it nature, food, or culture-based tourism. To attract a larger share of travellers, using words like sustainable is not the only way forward. A focus on inspirational stories, adopting a more targeted marketing strategy, will ensure more clarity in terms of what the destination can offer. In Sweden’s case, traveller perception already includes sustainability, which means there’s plenty of opportunity to showcase the smorgasbord of delights this country has to offer.

Have you been to Sweden? What did you enjoy most? Tell us in the comment section! Don’t forget to subscribe to the newsletter and benefit from tips, interviews, and inspirational examples of sustainable tourism and luxury travel.

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