Responsible tourism in Sweden

Travel right in Sweden

Swedes try hard to balance the cherished right to roam freely in their countryside with an awareness that the land needs active protection from those who might harm it. Some do so intentionally (illegal loggers, greedy mining firms), other unintentionally - idiotic off-road drivers, over-zealous foragers or careless walkers trudging across fragile lichen. Be aware of those who live with the land, such as the Sami reindeer herders – inadvertently startling a herd into scattering can cause days of extra work for them. And before you sneer at snowmobiles as noisy polluters of a peaceful northern wilderness, bear in mind that for many locals they are an essential all-terrain winter transport for longer distances in isolated areas – or for Sami herding reindeer. There are more ways than you might think to travel right in Sweden.


People & culture


Sami – image v reality

The preservation of Sami culture is a source of increasing debate – though not just with regard to 'mainstream' Swedish society but also within the Sami community. Outwardly, laudable efforts seem to have been made in recent years, with initiatives such as the Minority Languages Act which sought to promote Sami language teaching and wider use in Lapland. However, pragmatic folk have pointed out that the language has already been greatly weakened by the inability of many young Sami to speak it well, while a lack of enough officials proficient in Sami undermined its widespread administrative use in practice (as opposed to principle). A newly-created mobile phone app - Memrise - which will translate phrases into Sami is just one attempt to stimulate the interest of younger Sami in their language.

A thornier issue is how the Sami community is perceived as opposed to how it actually is. For example, reindeer herding is widely perceived as a key marker of Sami existence – yet only 10 percent of Sami belong to active reindeer herding collectives (known as sameby), and only 5 percent are believed to actually herd reindeer! Further widening the gulf between practical reality and perception is the fact that the Swedish government officially designates many Sami rights based on the idea that their primary activity is reindeer herding, limiting rights for the many Sami who don't do this as a key part of their lifestyle.
And while in theory the Swedish Supreme Court acknowledges Sami land rights, in practice these are frequently disregarded, with encroachment by mining companies, disputes with farmers over grazing pasture for reindeer – and tourism operations. Anti-Sami prejudice is also, sadly, prevalent amid some Swedes, who see the Sami as 'outsiders' and 'inferior', despite the lauding of Sami culture as a tourist draw.

Ingrid Inga of the Sami Parliament (established in 1993) argues that the Sami should have the right to make decisions about their own affairs and not just have the responsibility for the reindeer industry alone. "We want reforms that give us powers over areas that affect us - language, education, land use and so on. We need this so that the parliament becomes a real decision making body and not just the state agency which we are at the moment."

While this sounds fair and just, the Parliament itself is arguably unrepresentative. More than half the parliamentary seats are held by reindeer herders, even though they just represent between 5-10 percent of the community. Land-related disputes predominate debates, ignoring the concerns of nearly 90 percent of Sami who lack the land rights linked specifically to herding.

What you can do:

Try to ensure that any Sami tourist activities you take part in benefit as wide a range of the community as possible. Speak to the Sami – your guides, the herders you visit – to learn more about the issues they are facing.

Egalitarianism – Swedish dream or reality?

In 2013, a week of fiery riots erupted in the Stockholm suburb of Husby before spreading to other towns across the country. TV coverage seriously dented the image of Sweden as a country at egalitarian ease with the full range of its citizens, with affected areas notable for a high proportion of immigrants and poor native Swedes. While those in power spoke of 'hooligans', others suggested it was a wake-up call that could have come sooner - and which needs to be heeded.
Of Husby's 12,000 residents, 85 percent have an immigrant background, creating ghetto conditions ill at ease with the Swedish love of all things in balance. High youth unemployment, poverty and a fatal shooting of a 69-year-old immigrant by Swedish police sparked the riots.

When the economic crisis hit, the Swedish government implemented austerity measures. Cuts to unemployment benefits and health care subsidies saw poorer Swedes hit hard, creating a social divide whose levels of bitterness have been worsened by the activities of small but noisy neo-Nazi organisations such as VAM (whose full Swedish name translates as White Aryan Resistance) who have been behind racist attacks in recent years.
Some argue the riots' exposure of a darker reality behind the Swedish facade of prosperous equality will prove a necessary catalyst of genuine change in a country that really does seem to care about egalitarian principles. Sweden's much-touted integration has been revealed as an ideal in need of hard cash and decisive action rather than fine words. Investment in jobs and education for those excluded from the Swedish dream may give it substance previously lacking for many immigrants and the young.

Wildlife & environment


A shooting party in need of new rules

Talk of hunting – and especially the phrase 'hunting with dogs' – should reflect differences between Sweden and the UK. In Sweden, hunting is a vastly more widespread practice – around 300,000 registered hunters in a population of 9 million – which many Swedes would say is linked to a genuine bond with a natural wilderness over which anyone can roam freely.

Sweden's hunting season runs from August to February (leaving the animals alone during breeding season), depending on species and region. Much of what gets shot goes to the pot; none of these animals are endangered, and things like shooting elk are akin to the culling of the deer population in the Scottish Highlands in order to keep numbers to a well-balanced level. Sweden has the world’s highest density of elk (moose) with an estimated population of 250,000.

What may alarm some is the use of dogs, due to images conjured up by British foxhunting. However, rather than bloodthirsty hounds chasing animals to exhaustion, Swedes use a variety of dogs to bring the animals closer to the hunters. Slow dogs like dachsund or basset are used to get roe deer into shooting range because faster hounds are considered to cause unnecessary extra stress to the animal. For elk, big dogs are used (akin to huskies), and their role is solely to steer the animal towards the hunters to despatch with one shot. Unlike foxes, the elk will then be eaten – it's a Swedish delicacy.

Far more controversial is the shooting of wolves, which were hunted to near extinction in Sweden until a ban was imposed in the 1970s. As the population grew to around 200, the ban was lifted again in 2010, and arguments rage between pro-culling authorities and organisations like the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation which say the Swedish wolf population can grow further while remaining at a healthy and sustainable level. But without independent scientific research to back the culling lobby's position, the idea that 200 wolves is too large a number for Sweden's vast wilderness seems highly dubious.
However far numbers have come back, the wolf remains a threatened species here. Government-set figures are not backed up by independent research, casting doubt on culling quotas. And hunting wolves also fails to take into account their crucial role as top predators in the Swedish eco-system, and the benefits they bring. Finally, from a tourism point of view, pro-culling debates ignore or seriously downplay the huge growing potential of wildlife tourism both in the preservation of habitats and in providing important benefits for rural communities both in financial terms and with regard to engagement with their environment.

Unlike their neighbours in Norway, at least the Swedes should get credit for at least trying to act with some ethical guidelines – even if you disagree with the practice of culling as a whole. Strictly controlled wolf hunts are limited to January and February (before the breeding season). Hunters are required to report every wolf kill immediately by radio, with the quota checked for the whole region every hour. And the cull is supported by the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency – though, of course, a government-funded agency may not be likely to oppose government policy. But at least all the above suggests the Swedes aren't just bloodthirsty hunters, whatever you think of wider issues.

But Sweden is also tackling wildlife conflict issues with foresight, compassion and practical measures. The research station at Grimsφ, deep within the Bergslagen forests, uses radio tracking to learn more about the movement and behaviour of predator populations – including wolf and lynx – to help develop viable plans for their future conservation – while also gaining vital evidence to put before locals who may feel less positive about the presence of such animals in their area. A recent initiative has seen the introduction of special fencing, similar to an electric fence, which has proved extremely effective in reducing livestock predation - and reducing anger from farmers.

What you can do:
Support tourist initiatives revolving around enjoying seeing wolves in the wild.

Can't see the wood for the trees

In Sweden, 2,000 forest-dwelling species have been listed as under threat, ranging from white-backed woodpeckers to species of lichen and moss. While Sweden has made great efforts to promote responsible timber management, bad practices such as illegal logging still exist. Swedish authorities, working with organisations like WWF, have initiated forest projects to combat illegal logging, and support responsible forest management and certification, and long-term sustainability.

What you can do:
Treat woodland with care when trekking, and only buy products produced from sustainable wood.

Responsible tourism tips

Travel better in Sweden

  • Don't use detergents or toothpaste in or near watercourses, even if they claim to be biodegradable. For personal hygiene use biodegradable soap and a container of water at least 50m from a watercourse. To clean cooking utensils, keep a similar distance and use a scourer, sand or snow rather than detergent.
  • Do not contaminate rivers and lakes by using them as handy toilets. If there isn't a toilet, bury any waste in a small hole at least 100m from any water.
  • Carry litter with you out of the wilderness – never bury it.
  • Don't cut wood to make fires – in popular trekking areas it can cause rapid deforestation.
  • Hunting or fishing in any part of Sweden requires a permit for that specific area – get details from the local tourist office.
  • A wide range of useful information – including rules on picking wild plants - is available from Sweden's environmental protection agency Naturvardsverket.
Photo credits: [Logging: Richard Gray] [Reindeer herder: Mats Andersson] [Wolves: Fool4myCanon]
Written by Norman Miller
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