Sustainable tourism and heritage destinations in the Baltic Sea Archipelago

Annika Kunnasvirta,
Project Manager,
Turku University of Applied Sciences,

Being one of the fastest growing economic sectors world-wide, tourism brings with it many advantages. When properly managed tourism contributes to economic growth, creating jobs and wealth, and can lead to better protection of the environment and many local social benefits, as well as preservation of cultural heritage. The Baltic Sea Strategy policy area for tourism, for example, aims to develop the Baltic Sea region as a common tourism destination. However, tourism always has an impact on both the economic and environmental surroundings, as well as various social-cultural impacts. The unique ecological characteristics of the Baltic Sea, in particular, make it a sensitive and vulnerable ecosystem, exposed to environmental load and high pressure of use. How should these risks be taken into account when planning for sustainable tourism in the archipelago?

Sustainable tourism – a misnomer?

The European Strategy for more growth and jobs in coastal and maritime tourism aims to stimulate the economic and sustainable development of the tourism sector, at the same time promoting growth and creating jobs. As both coastal and maritime tourism are on the rise, so are the challenges brought by an increasing number of visitors. Sustainable growth, therefore, is the key to both offering jobs and keeping environmental pressure within acceptable limits.

When people travel, an impact of varying degree is always left to the destination. In a way, therefore, sustainable tourism is a misnomer. This realization should still not prevent harnessing tourism for wider sustainable development goals: recognizing the negative impacts of tourism and finding ways to prevent environmental harm, as well as preserving important cultural heritage.

Potential exists for more sustainable tourism in the Baltic Sea Region

In essence, tourism overall and in the Baltic Sea Region in particular depends on sustainability. The Baltic Sea is a particularly vulnerable environment, prone to the impacts from the inflow of travelers. The archipelago environment accommodates diverse habitats and ecosystems and fosters a cultural heritage spanning back centuries. It is therefore essential that the potential effects of tourism development are thoroughly assessed before implementation, and the highly sensitive and interdependent marine ecosystem with its unique flora and fauna are protected.

It should be borne in mind that sustainable tourism unavoidably entails some trade-offs. It may happen, for example, that favouring local produce in archipelago destinations may increase the number of trips made to the mainland to retrieve the needed foodstuff instead of wholesale procurement. In such cases, a trade-off has to be made between economic and ecological sustainability. While some actors in the sector may find it difficult to balance between competitive economic activity and the protection of the environment and cultural heritage, embracing sustainability also brings a competitive advantage as the demand side for responsible travel is on the rise. The number of sustainability aware tourists is steadily growing and ecological standards are becoming an important selection criteria when booking a holiday.

Developing sustainable destinations and preserving unique cultural heritage

The Footprints of Defence in the Archipelago project (“DefenceArch”), funded by the Interreg Central Baltic 2014-2020 programme, was designed for the development of thematic tourism based on the defence of the archipelagos of Turku, Åland and Stockholm in pilots located at the Gålö seal station, the Bomarsund fortress area, Archipelago Centre Korpoström and the southern tip of the fortress island of Örö. The overall objective of project was to develop existing, though almost untapped defence historical resources of these destinations into appealing and sustainable destinations by increasing the awareness and experience value of the visitors. The project thereby contributed to EUSBSR, especially PA “Tourism” and PA “Culture” by utilizing cultural and natural heritage resources of archipelago in order to create an attractive and sustainable joint tourist attraction in the Baltic Sea.

Sustainable development was one of the core horizontal objectives of the DefenceArch project and all aspects of sustainability – cultural, ecological, economic and social – in BSR tourism were analyzed and embedded in the actions and outputs of the project.  At the Bomarsund fortress in Åland, for example, the tourist experience was enriched by providing both information, navigation and guidance via the Coastal Past mobile application developed by the project for its destinations. The goal of the mobile app is to provide useful information on the sites for the tourist in an easy-to-use format. This means not only loading the tourist with ample information and details but also allowing the tourist to experience the sites without harming the natural values by keeping people on the correct routes.

As both coastal and maritime tourism are on the rise, so are the challenges brought by an increasing number of visitors.

The Gålö seal station near Stockholm, then again, faced some rather different challenges regarding sustainable tourism development. Gålö is owned by a party – the  Stockholm Archipelago Foundation – that is already well-established in sustainability issues. Gålö nature values were already well known and there was pre-visit information available on them. The state of the site infrastructure, however, was rather poor and there was a risk that some of the existing, historically valuable constructions might not be safe enough to be preserved. The renovations that took place at Gålö however managed to sustain the unique history of the site. The refurbished accommodation perfectly captures the WW2 era atmosphere and the re-construction of the pier that was used for training the seals carefully resembles the original constructions. In addition, sustainability of activities is strongly promoted by the newly elected entrepreneur running the site.

Being a massive industry, tourism is an important part of the efforts to achieve sustainable development.  Concerted efforts are however needed to direct both entrepreneurs and tourists alike towards more sustainable choices and solutions. Tourism development should thus be a continuous process whereby the various long-term objectives of development and their impacts on the environment are taken into account systematically. In the Baltic Sea region, tourism thrives on marine and coastal environments that are often fragile and finite, as well rich cultural heritage both in tangible and intangible that needs to be preserved. Preservation of nature and culture should be seen as a tool to valorize our heritage instead of regarding sustainable actions as limiting growth and development.


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