Northern Lights Tourism in the Nordic Countries
Updated: Mar 1
This is a research essay I wrote in 2018, and as such informs about current trends in aurora tourism, and whether it is an authentic experience. It tries to create an understanding of why someone would want to have a northern lights experience.
Northern lights tourism in the Nordic Countries has been examined. Northern lights have the capacity to bring profound pleasure to its viewers. The essay discusses topics such as the shifting ‘tourist gaze’, authenticity, the tourism industry and photography in an integrated way in relation to this topic. It has discussed the impacts of tourism on the region and on the tourists themselves. The main argument is that due to being such a profoundly unique thing, the northern lights are generally a highly authentic experience. However, this authenticity is reduced when the lights are experienced in a more commercial way, something that is becoming increasingly common.
The aurora borealis, or northern lights, have captured the gaze of generations of star-gazers. Many myths and legends have been woven about the meaning of these lights. The Nordic has featured prominently in the aurora legendarium, especially in Norse mythology. Appearing around the earth’s Polar Regions on dark nights, the science behind the enchanting phenomenon has only become well-understood recently; they are caused mainly by charged solar particles hitting the atmosphere. Meanwhile, an increasing tourist interest has been generated regarding the lights, especially with the possibility to take spectacular photos with modern technology. This essay examines the role of Urry’s (2002) conceptualisation of the tourist gaze in relation to the northern lights, being that tourism is a visual form of consumption bringing pleasure to the eyes. It analyses how the ideas of tourist gaze, photography, auroras and authenticity intersect. Specifically, whether the current aurora tourism industry in the Nordic countries of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Iceland can bring about an ‘authentic’ aurora experience. In the context of tourism, the notion of authenticity relates to an experience that is not a mere copy, it is genuine, unique and makes the tourist feel truly special. I will argue that experiencing the aurora is highly authentic generally, but its growing commercialisation and having the tourist gaze cast upon it makes it less authentic in many ways. The topic was chosen due to a relative shortage of research on this niche area of tourism.
The Tourist Gaze shifting towards ‘authentic’ polar lights
With tourism becoming a mainstream activity for the majority of middle-class and above people living in developed nations, there has been a growing focus for tourists to find more authentic experiences. This has meant that the tourist gaze, or object of visual pleasure being focused on by tourists, has shifted and broadened to encapsulate more unique experiences such as the northern lights. Other such activities have included hiking, adventure tours and visits to historical villages; all things that would be considered ‘off the beaten track’. In comparison, the object of the gaze beforehand tended to be more traditional destinations such as historical cities and seaside resorts. The tourist gaze is focused on visual activities, which makes northern lights ‘viewing’ a very good example. According to Urry (2002), places are chosen to be gazed upon because there is an anticipation through fantasy or daydreaming of intense pleasure or enjoyment from a visual ‘touristic experience’ there — perpetuated through media and one’s networks. It is also because the experience is very different from an everyday one. That is very much in line with what tourists can experience with regards to the aurora. Urry’s framework has been criticised by scholars as it appears to omit the physical and intellectual activities of tourism. Some of these criticisms are accurate, however since the aurora is such a visual phenomenon, the tourist gaze idea is profoundly accurate for it. But many would argue it is also a very emotional experience, and an intellectual one, which will be discussed later.
Going to the Arctic and seeing the inspiring colours of auroras dancing in the sky is a highly unique experience, and it is only possible in a handful of places such as the Nordic countries, which is why it has been considered so authentic. People have described the experience as truly thrilling and special, especially when experienced with the backdrop of a pristine landscape. It is not only visually pleasurable, but powerful emotionally as well. They appear as curtains of pale green and sometimes reddish hues on the northern horizon, sometimes all over the sky in more powerful displays. These are some of the reasons they have become frequent on travellers’ ‘bucket-lists’, cementing their position as a phenomenon attracting a significant tourist gaze. Another factor is that often they can only be seen a few times a week, meaning countless travellers have missed out. The chance factor of sighting them further adds to their significant allure and ‘authentic nature’. This allure has then over the past few decades created a specialised northern lights tourism industry.
Rise of the Northern Lights tourism industry
With the knowledge that experiencing the northern lights is a truly authentic and majestic thing, an ever-increasing number of tourists now wish to venture to Arctic Norway, Finland and Iceland. In turn, there is now a burgeoning industry to cater for such tourists, this being a clear example of Urry’s (2002) notion of changing focal points of the tourist gaze. Tourists can book expensive Aurora group tours months in advance for a ‘guarantee’ of seeing the lights, or can try their luck at just booking accommodation at an aurora hotspot. There are even glass-igloos where tourists can view the lights from the warmth of their beds. Each year the numbers of tourists to Finnish Lapland, for example, have increased, with an 8 percent increase in airport arrivals to the region between 2014 and 2015 according to Eye on the Arctic.
The northern lights are a favoured drawcard in particular for Japanese tourists. There is a popular belief amongst Japanese people that to conceive underneath auroras brings happy, healthy and beautiful children. There have been reports that some tourists come only to see the lights, and if they do not they are gravely disappointed. With every year, new hotels and cabins are built to accommodate the growing numbers, and growth plans have been announced for each of the arctic airports in Finland. As such, the experience is read through a cultural filter.
This significant growth in northern lights related tourism begs an important question. Is it still authentic to experience the northern lights? The tourists involved are over time increasingly subjected to waiting lists on tours, crowded tour buses and hotels, overpriced amenities and large crowds at the vantage points. These are all characteristic of inauthentically-experienced/perceived tourist experiences. Perhaps they are still authentic, as the focal object of the tourist gaze is supposedly such an inspiring sight . With every year, the authenticity of the experience is seemingly fading, with greater numbers experiencing it.
A prime example for this is that of Iceland, which has undergone a massive tourism boom since 2010. Iceland is a focal point of the northern lights ‘tourist gaze’. It has become popular as tourists increasingly search for more authentic and ‘exotic’ experiences. From 2009 to 2016, Accommodation stays increased by 217 percent, airport traffic and tourism expenditure both grew by roughly 280 percent. Compared to a local population of just 335,000, there were 2 million tourist arrivals in 2017. A significant proportion of this was due to being a prime spot for viewing auroras, but also its pristine nature and being a filming location for shows such as Game of Thrones. With that many tourists, there are many negative ramifications. Urry (2002) states that the amount of tourists compared to the local population and country size can significantly affect the country in question, often in negative ways.
This is definitely true with Iceland. Even though tourism now accounts for 20 percent of GDP, it has come at a cost. The massive influx of tourists is leading to heavy crowds in small towns, natural sanctuaries being littered with rubbish or damaged in other ways, and a general deterioration of the state of the island. The experience of tourists is being marred by long lines to get into places such as northern lights viewing points, along with accommodation being booked out. It is becoming more contrived and mass-tourism oriented. These factors all work to reduce authenticity, particularly regarding aurora viewing. Along with that, one of the main reasons to view the northern lights is to take a photo of them, which is becoming easier with today’s digital technology. This will be discussed in the next section with an explanation how it is contributing to a further lack of authenticity.
Role of photography in aurora tourism
One of the main reasons northern lights tourism has become so popular is due to the spectacular and colourful photos taken of them. These are distributed readily by tourism companies in marketing materials, especially via social media. Furthermore, tourists often share their own photos on social media, in the process encouraging their peers to also experience auroras. As the lights are such an appealing thing, most tourists wishing to see them would like to have a photo. This fits into the narrative discussed by Chalfen (1979) and Urry (2002) that potential tourists daydream about the visual experience they would like to have and then establish a pre-determined photo to take. Taking such images then allows the tourists to have a much more memorable experience, taking the northern lights from a page to real life and back to a page again. They can then relive this experience through the photos again and take pleasure in sharing it with friends and family. As such, it can make the experience seem much more authentic to the traveller.
At the Arctic Norwegian city of Tromsø, many aurora tour operators have now included aurora photography skills sessions or individual portraits with the northern lights in their packages. Despite the fact that taking nice images can seem to make an experience more enjoyable and authentic, the commercialisation of such opportunities at the same time undermines this. People on these tours are usually shipped to pre-determined vantage points where other tours are present, and people vie for the photo opportunities, waiting their turn to get an aurora photo taken with them in it. The experience still spectacular, but perhaps not as authentic if fifty other people have taken the same photo. The networks of the given tourist are not exposed to the other fifty photos however, and so the pictures seem highly authentic.
Another important point to consider with northern lights photography is that the lights themselves are much brighter on photos, as human eye receptors cannot pick up colour as well in dark lighting. Furthermore, most professional aurora photos are made more impressive on photo-editing software, something tour companies in particular make use of . In effect, aurora tourists are somewhat duped. It can even be said that aurora photos are not authentic at all, and the visual experience, though still breathtaking — is very different from the one represented on photos.
Are the Northern Lights ultimately an authentic tourist experience?
For many reasons, the northern lights have represented one of the pinnacles of the touristic experience: exotic, unique and still desired by most tourists — and definitely authentic. There is nothing like being in a quiet snowy forest with the lights dancing above. But when such an authentic experience comes along, more and more people would like to also experience it, causing a tourist gaze to be cast upon it. A whole tourism economy develops around it, with it coming an infrastructure boom and heavy crowds. It can easily be argued that it is not authentic anymore, in the case of the northern lights especially so since many would like to take a photo of it, and the photo is different from the actual experience. In some cases, especially with those large, pre-booked tours, aurora tourism can even be an example of mass tourism.
Urry (2002) states that the mass tourist travels in guided groups and finds pleasure in contrived attractions and imaginative hedonism. This is true to a degree for the northern lights, especially for those in large tour groups. However, the aurora are not contrived or imagined — even though photography enhances them. The northern lights have the capacity to make someone feel truly special regardless of the circumstances. This contrasts with more traditional and arguably contrived attractions such as the Mona Lisa. This means that at the end of the day, they are an authentic experience. If anything, less authentic when experienced as a ‘mass tourist’ and more authentic when experienced alone by a cottage in a snowy forest. So in that sense, the aurora tourism industry in the Nordics can bring about an authentic experience.
The northern lights have been an object of profound fascination for tourists, who have cast a ‘gaze’ on this enchanting phenomenon. With the lights having the capacity to make tourists feel truly special, they have been listed as one of the most authentic, pleasurable and unique things to see. With this in mind, an entire tourist industry in the Nordic Countries has been established catering to tourists wishing to experience them. As this industry has grown, the experience has become more commercial, mass-tourist oriented and less authentic. Photography has played a large role in this cycle, with some photos not authentic representations of the experience. Due to having such a profound impact on tourists, not only visually, they are authentic regardless of the circumstance. But their authenticity is less when experienced in an overtly commercial or contrived way.
The North Wind Adventurer was created by Tristan Pokornyi in 2017 following extended time overseas in Northern Europe. With a passion for photography, aurora chasing, outdoors activities and nature, Tristan can often be found reflecting on a past trip… or planning the next one.
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