Finland’s Cities Lure Tourists With Promise of Sustainability

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Tampere is only the latest Finnish city to market itself as eco-friendly, and there’s definitely something to it. But a report published by the City of Helsinki found the Finnish tourism sector’s emissions are 80% higher than the EU average.

Tampere, a southern Finnish city known for its industrial skyline, 160 nearby lakes, and ample public saunas, says it aims to become the “world’s leading sustainable travel destination.”

Tampere is marketing itself as an “environmentally friendly destination” that will appeal to tourists looking to make greener holiday choices.

The announcement from Tampere is not the first from a Finnish city. The trend is likely a result of Scandinavia’s gradual rise to stardom as traditional Southern European destinations become too hot for summer travel. 

Nordic exposure

Tampere’s popularity is steadily growing, with overnight stays increasing since the pandemic. In 2023, the city registered 1.1 million arrivals, an increase of 8% from 2022.

Over the past decades, it has made progress in reducing emissions. Greenhouse gas emissions fell by 34% from 1990 levels. The city also claims that 62% of its energy production is renewable.

However, the tourism sector is still in the early phases of implementing changes.

“In the tourism sector we are still in the phase of determining what is the end goal, a.k.a when we can credibly declare that we have reached climate neutrality,” said Matti Pollari, the project manager of sustainable tourism development at Visit Tampere.

Pollari said that the key actions for reducing emissions include building tramlines, improving bus service, installing better infrastructure for walking and cycling, and adding carbon-neutral district heating.

For now, Visit Tampere is focused on reducing emissions by collaborating with major operators in the area, including amusement parks, hotels, and event venues.

A sustainable Finnish city?

Tampere is only the latest in a line of Finnish cities hoping to entice tourists with the promise of sustainability.

Helsinki has been working hard to define its image as a sustainable capital city. It committed to promoting sustainability education among tourism providers and requiring the sector to prepare climate goals and roadmaps. Tourism sector operators are expected to transition to entirely renewable energy and invest in emissions-free transportation between now and 2026.

In 2023, the Global Destination Sustainability Index ranked Helsinki as the fourth most sustainable tourist destination in the world.

Another city just north of Helsinki, Lahti, also incorporates sustainability into its image. The city, which is known for its winter sports, stopped using coal in its main power plant and replaced it with forest residue and waste timber. It built bike lanes, repair stations, and e-bike stands and transitioned to electric buses.

In 2021, Lahti instituted an urban ski-sharing program. They installed a few ski depots and encouraged people to use skis to get from one place to another in the winter, similar to a bike-share program.

Harder than it sounds

This progress comes with a caveat, however. While in-country travel may be more sustainable, these destinations are much harder to get to than most cities in Europe.

A report published by the City of Helsinki in 2023 found that the “greenhouse gas intensity of the Finnish tourism sector is 80% higher than the EU average.” The report attributed this to flights, building energy consumption, and the long distances people have to drive to get around. 

While air travel accounts for the greatest share of tourism related emissions, at least 20% of the country’s total emissions come from transportation. Of that, 85% results from private or individual transportation. 

“Traffic emissions are a common problem for carbon neutrality; it’s not easy to find examples of cities with carbon-neutral traffic systems,” said Maija Faehnle, a senior research scientist at the Finnish Environment Institute. 

“An essential question is if the measures contribute to making sustainable mobility choices actually attractive enough and changing the culture of using private cars.”

Pollari said that Visit Tampere wants to invest in improving the “safety and attractiveness” of walking and cycling.

But Finnish experts say that moving people away from private transportation will be difficult. 

“Transport is the main challenge in this area,” said Eva Heiskanen, Professor at the Center for Consumer Society and Research at the University of Helsinki. “Cars are widely used in Finnish cities.” 

She added that while EVs are gaining ground she “greatly doubts that they would make up even the majority of the private vehicle fleet by 2030 unless drastic measures are taken.”

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