Sustainable luxury tourism? Norwegian tour operator, Up Norway shows how it can be done

Sustainable luxury tourism can sound like an oxymoron at first listen. After all, luxury is synonymous to excess, opulence, richness – in travel and in daily life it can sometimes be synonymous to waste, or overindulgence. But Norwegian tour operator Up Norway, and their CEO Torunn Tronsvagg, would push back on that notion. They believe (and prove) that the richest experiences in Norway are actually some of the most sustainable, and that the same goes for most places.

I had the opportunity to talk with Torunn about Up Norway, sustainable luxury tourism, and travel in the age of COVID-19 and I’m thrilled to be able to share some of those highlights here. I hung up from my call with Torunn buzzing with energy and excitement over the possibilities she painted for the travel industry at large.

Up Norway exemplifies the type of tourism I believe we need and deserve: luxurious, exhilarating, and authentic experiences that show tourists a deeper side of Norway, all the while ensuring that the beautiful country and culture being explored is also being protected.

Read our conversation below, but be warned – you might come away with an extreme urge to plan a trip to Norway, and from my personal experiences there, I’d have to say it’s a fantastic idea.

A HUGE thank you and shoutout to Torunn for sharing her insights with me, and her team (Taylor & Megan) who helped me coordinate this interview!

How did you get into this career? What’s your background? What led you here?

Torunn’s background is in hospitality. She studied luxury tourism in Dubai during university and it was there she began to learn about quality experiences for people who have money to spend. 

Luxury tourism in Dubai and in Norway can look quite a bit different though, as you might imagine.

Norway is world renowned for her sprawling lands, jam packed with beautiful fjords, mountains, and cliffs that seem straight out of a movie. Born and raised in Norway, Torunn’s roots have shaped her definition of luxury tourism. Rather than the glitz and glam you might associate with Dubai’s bustling city, for Torunn “luxury is about authenticity, about being in touch with nature.” 

After studying in Dubai, she dreamt of working in Bhutan. Through the Aman Resorts, Torunn was able to realize that dream, eventually working at 5 different lodges in Bhutan on experience development. There she refined her hospitality knowledge. “Something I learned was that these resorts were not branding everything as sustainable, even though it is, because often the best or most authentic tourism experiences are inherently sustainable.”

Eventually, Torunn ended up back in Norway. 

“I realized that the best experiences for tourists in Norway were so small and fragmented throughout the country, it was almost impossible for people to find them. Tourists end up going to the same few places. I wanted a company to exist that would create a better network of these experiences and connect travelers to these authentic experiences. 

I really wanted someone else to create this company, I didn’t want to do it myself. But nobody did, so I had to do it.”

An aside on sustainability and greenwashing

Did you catch that? Torunn pointed out that many of the most eco-friendly, ethical travel providers are not branding everything as sustainable. That’s super important for a few reasons. 

One – As tourists, we need to recognize that how something is labeled doesn’t guarantee its sustainability, or anything else. Some of the most sustainable experiences don’t advertise themselves as such because its simply an inherent part of how they operate. 

On the flip side, some experiences which are definitely NOT sustainable will try to market themselves as such. Look through the labels to what’s actually there. 

Two – That being the case, it’s important that travelers have an understanding of the basic principles of sustainability in travel. It’s unlikely we’ll all become experts, but a working knowledge of the impact that our tourism can have on local economies and ecosystems is important. That way we can rely less on the marketing and make our own informed decisions about what we see, do, and consume on the road. 

Basically, don’t get too caught up in the labels or certifications. They can be a great place to start, but you’ll notice many places who say they’re eco-friendly don’t really explain how. Try to really assess the transparency of a travel service provider and how they run operate and make your own judgement.

Try this next: How to Find Eco-Friendly Accommodations

What do you want people to know about UP Norway?

“Up Norway has always been about quality. Lately we’ve been looking at sustainability as the leading thing we’re working toward, and quality being part of THAT. Rather than looking at creating quality experiences first and then seeing how we can make sustainability a part of that.

An important thing that sets us apart is that we’re not trying to sell the world, we’re just trying to sell Norway. And since we’ve chosen to specialize in Norway, we’ve been all over the country and we know all our tour operators and partners personally. It means our team is confident in steering guests toward experiences we know they’d enjoy most based on their interests.”

Up Norway is a young, forward thinking company and one aspect that sets them apart is their digital itineraries. Torunn has invested in an advanced system called Up Tours, which allows them to automate the back end of the tour process. 

That basically means her team uses technology to create better experiences, quality assure their trips and partners more easily, and allow for improved communication with small businesses who may not have as elaborate systems to work with. 

Each guest also receives a detailed electronic itinerary they can adjust if needed, in addition to the readily available support team who can help during a trip. If poor weather strikes, which can be extreme and likely during Norwegian winters, this means it’s easy to make adjustments. 

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What are your thoughts on over-tourism and sustainability, and the role of tour operators like Up Norway?

“We are going through a shift in the tourism industry, Coronavirus or not. Recent luxury travel reports are documenting increased interest in travel specialists and in eco-friendly or sustainable experiences. So, the responsibility we have is increasing. 

Customers today have too much information, and they don’t know how to separate good and bad quality experiences. They have a need for travel advisors more than ever. Modern types of travel specialists take that role very professionally.

I also think people are not taking holidays to relax as much as they used to, they’re taking them to be inspired and find more meaning. It’s our responsibility to connect them with those authentic, engagement experiences that we know are also sustainable.

Our time has really never been better. Where before the primary destinations for international luxury travelers in Europe were places like Spain or Italy. Now people might be looking for places with more space, outdoor attractions, a good public health system – things which Norway is in a prime position to offer.

We’ve created a Sustainability Advisory Board with the purpose of using international and external resources to offer both expertise and advice on how to best develop sustainable experiences in a broader sense, (i.e. through the environment, local economy, and social communities, how to reach out and inspire travelers with related stories, and how to make a positive difference and influence others to do the same).

The Sustainability Advisory Board will help us achieve our goal of becoming Sustainable Luxury Travel Experts. Milena Nikolova, our behavioral strategist, is an expert on how to influence people to make more sustainable choices and purchases. Her research is very valuable to us as it helps us discover how we can best communicate with our potential and existing travelers.”

Can you talk about your work as a tour operator and how you might collaborate with other players, like Norwegian ministries other operators, airlines, etc. 

“This is a very different answer three months ago than now. Generally, beforehand, we always worked closely with main tourism providers in Norway – Visit Norway has been a big partner because we’re very similarly aligned. 

Now, the big challenge in Norway is that hospitality and tourism is not taken seriously and respected the same as other businesses that might be easier to define. The value chain of travel has so many different layers – transit, accommodations, retail, restaurants, etc. that make it hard to define exact value of tourism. 

The government is taking oil and fisheries industries and hair salons very seriously, for example, during COIVD. But the travel industry is not getting as much structural support. The EU law demands tour providers refund all travelers who were due to arrive in Norway 100%, but we must also adhere to supplier obligation. It’s slowly driving everyone to bankruptcy. It’s not survival of the fittest, because those who were doing the best and had the most customers are those ones getting hit the hardest by these laws.”

Your travels obviously inspire/influence Up Norway. How often do you get to travel now that you’re a CEO? What role does travel play in your regular work now?

“Since I started as CEO, I haven’t done much other than work, but I do get to travel a lot. 

When COVID started, our team was laid off temporarily, but now our whole team of 6 will be travelling most of June going on three or four journeys around Norway to scout new trips. 

We’re looking into trips like the Kings Road, an e-bike journey along the coast of Norway, a Discovery Route network of travel partners, and a trip involving a hybrid ship that’s environmentally friendly. I will have an intern with me on this trip to help create a film and content too.”

A few other important comments from Torunn I wanted to include

On fear mindsets

“When I decided to start Up Norway, I said “Let’s start an MBA and figure out how to do this myself.” I didn’t have the guts to do it without it. After master thesis, I did a feasibility study on this business model and was given a 1,000,000 NOR ($100,000) grant from the Norwegian Research Council to start that business. I worked alone on that funding the first year.

Nothing is luck. I was very conscious of that and really struggled at first with the fear of failing – scared to death of not being able to be deliver on these investments. 

Finally a mentor asked told me, “Is your fear useful for your investors? Just let it go. Do your thing.” “

On being a female business owner in the tourism industry

“During that first year working on Up Norway, my female friends were the ones take care of me – making sure I was fed, supported. But it was the men in business who pushed me forward. 

A woman will often feel more responsibility for others than a man typically would and we need professional and friendly men who will push you forward and help you. I’ve been humble and accepted all the help I’ve been offered, and never been scared to ask for help. 

It probably varies around the world and on what industry. But in this industry in Norway there are so many strong women, and men who support women. Women could benefit from finding groups of men AND women who support equality, instead of just women who help women. We have something to learn from all people, not just by sex alone. “

On people who work in the travel industry

“Travel isn’t perceived as professional, but the industry needs to stick together.”

And I want to leave us with that takeaway. 

We in the travel industry – providers, consumers, promoters – must stick together. We’ve seen through COVID that the travel industry was a fragile thing, which came to a screeching halt when the pandemic arrived and which has left millions unable to work. 

I recently attended a seminar by the organizing group, Cultural Power, in which they shared the following affirmations:

  1. A just, sustainable, joyful world is possible and necessary. 
  2. We have the solutions we need. 
  3. We get through this together. 

I’d like to propose an adaptation of those to the travel industry that look like this:

  1. A just, sustainable, joyful tourism industry is possible and necessary. 
  2. We have the solutions we need. 
  3. We get through this together. 

I believe that tour providers like Up Norway who provide travelers with authentic experiences that empower local communities are part of the solution.

I believe that conscious consumers who seek out sustainably focused companies like Up Norway are a part of the solution. 

And I think we get through it together.

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Sustainable luxury tourism? Norwegian tour operator, Up Norway shows how it can be done