Scandinavia is sizzling hot for U.S. travelers. All four countries – Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Norway – are reporting record growth in American visitors, with Norway leading the pack.
“Many Americans are seeking new destinations after having visited the better-known European destinations,” said Helena Niskanen, president of Scandinavian Tourism Inc., the U.S. marketing organization for Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden.
Also fueling U.S. travel to Scandinavia is increased airlift to the region on Finnair, SAS and the new low-cost carrier Norwegian Air, which offers 20 weekly flights between the U.S. and Scandinavia.
For travel agents, a boom in travel to Scandinavia is good news, given that more than two-thirds – 69% – of Americans who travel to Scandinavia book their trips through agents, acccording to Scandinavian Tourism Inc.
Agents who sell Scandinavia tap into a rich market. (See sidebar.) Well-heeled baby boomers and retirees typically book long stays of 10 to 14 days.
Most visit several countries in a single trip, using a network of planes, trains, ferries and cruise ships, giving agents additional commission-earning opportunities.
Scandinavia is also becoming a year-round destination. Summer is high season, and spring and fall are popular, too. But there’s been a huge increase in winter travel to see the Northern Lights and to visit Lapland with its native Sami people and reindeer.
Price not a deterrent
Even the region’s traditionally high prices aren’t deterring U.S. visitors.
“Scandinavia always has had a reputation as a high-priced destination, but I think the rest of Europe is catching up,” said Siv Wadlin of Travel by Siv, a New York-based agency that’s part of the Tzell Travel Group.
Wadlin attributed Scandinavia’s popularity in part to the fact that “it’s undiscovered.”
“American travelers have tried other parts of Europe, and what is left is Scandinavia with its big open spaces.”
Air, train and ferry links between countries also “make it easy to travel,” said Wadlin. “And most people speak English.”
Norway is cool
Norway is leading the charge in U.S. bookings. “Interest in Norway has tripled since November 2013,” said Niskanen.
U.S. and Norwegian tour operators report a 22% to 50% increase in sales to Norway, and searches for flights to Norway are up 150%, she said, citing Flighttracker.
One factor generating interest in Norway right now is the popular Disney movie “Frozen” with its settings inspired by Norway.
“We’ve become cool because of that,” said Harald Hansen, public relations manager for Innovation Norway, the country’s New York-based marketing organization.
Norway has other cool factors too, he said. “Oslo is cool, with design and architecture, and the New Nordic food movement, using ingredients from farmlands, fjords and forests.”
Cruising Norway’s fjords
Travel to northern Norway in particular is up 50% from last year, said Hansen. He attributed the growth to the U.S. market push by the cruise line Hurtigruten, which sails a popular 12-day roundtrip Classic Norwegian Voyage that visits 34 ports.
Hurtigruten has been making big investments in the U.S. market with the aim of doubling business over the next three years, said managing director Gordon Dirker, who just opened the company’s first U.S. sales office in Seattle.
Toward that end, Hurtigruten is offering travel agents ad hoc booking incentives. “We are in a position to offer shipboard credits, to subsidize part of the airfare. In the past, we offered bonus commissions to agents booking Northern Lights cruises,” said Dirker.
Though Americans currently make up just 10% of Hurtigruten’s market, the line saw 20% growth in U.S. traffic in 2012-13 and 30% growth in 2013-14.
Welcome to Sweden
Meanwhile travel to Sweden from the U.S. is up approximately 25% through April, according to Mats Wessman, Visit Sweden’s U.S. country manager. He added that “bookings from the big agents’ networks are up by approximately 40% for Sweden.”
Sweden’s promotional campaigns targeting leisure mainstream as well as gay and lesbian travel have helped drive up U.S. visitor numbers he said, noting in particular increased travel from the U.S. market to the ICEHOTEL, in Jukkasjärvi, 128 miles north of the Arctic Circle.
“Sweden is perceived as a safe, progressive and liberal destination,” said Wessman.
Last week’s launch of the new NBC-TV comedy, “Welcome to Sweden,” could push up bookings further.
In neighboring Finland, U.S. travel is up 15% year to date, according to Niskanen, who also serves as Finland’s U.S. Marketing Representative. “In January and February, we were up 25%,” she added.
“Helsinki, the capital, and Southern Finland are the No. 1 areas, with 55% of overnights,” she said.
She added that Finnish Lapland and northeastern Finland, including Kuusamo and Kainuu, are gaining in popularity, “due to unique winter accommodations, such as heated glass igloos.”
Close neighbors across the Baltic Sea, Finland and Sweden often share U.S. visitors who visit both countries in one trip, using ferry and air links, or take multi-day Baltic cruises.
As Scandinavia’s easternmost country, Finland also benefits from its proximity to Russia.
The high-speed Allegro train, which connects Helsinki and St. Petersburg in three and a half hours, is popular with U.S. travelers.
Another popular choice: visa-free 72-hour cruises between Helsinki and St. Petersburg on St. Peter Line.
Denmark: Copenhagen's cool
Denmark reports a rise in American visitors, too, with a 6.6% increase in bed nights from the U.S. in 2013, the country’s biggest increase in U.S. travelers in eight years.
Visit Denmark predicts a 4% to 5% increase for 2014 and a 5% to 7% increase for 2015.
As Scandinavia’s southernmost destination, Denmark offers easy proximity to the European mainland. Copenhagen is also Northern Europe’s biggest turnaround port for cruises, making it a perfect destination for pre and post tours.
Along with design, fashion and architecture, Copenhagen is renowned for its New Nordic cuisine.
“With 17 Michelin restaurants, Copenhagen has made a mark on the international culinary scene, attracting food aficionados from all over the world,” said Bruno Bedholm, director of Visit Denmark, North America. “We see more and more Americans traveling to Copenhagen just to experience the food scene.”
Most U.S. visitors head to Copenhagen, then make day-trips to the nearby countryside.
U.S. visitors are also seeking out museums and historic sites. “The TV show, ‘Vikings,’ on the History Channel, and Lonely Planet’s inclusion of Denmark’s Viking sites on its ‘Best of Europe’ list, is making Scandinavian prehistory increasingly of interest to Americans,” said Bedholm.
Editor's note: This story has been revised. An earlier version contained incorrect information about Denmark's visitor numbers, due to an editing error.
Next time: Tips on selling Scandinavia, plus a new specialist program for agents.