To attract tourists, a good narrative matters

Winnipeg architect Brent Bellamy had a rather fascinating piece in today’s Winnipeg Free Press about the branding of what has been traditionally called the city’s Exchange District as “the Design Quarter”, along with nearby areas of Downtown and The Forks. He wrote:

The world is becoming smaller, travel is becoming easier and globalization is making cities more homogenous. As a result, tourists have begun to look more often for unique stories and authentic, local experiences in non-traditional destinations.

In recognition of this changing trend, last Friday a new initiative was launched to further attract this evolving tourist market as well as provide Winnipeggers with a new experience in their own city.

Design Quarter Winnipeg is an organically organized, grassroots initiative hoping to position downtown Winnipeg’s artistic community as a design and cultural tourism destination.

The idea hopes to bring together local, independent, design-focused events, shops, services and organizations under a single marketing umbrella, empowering them by establishing a broader collaborative network. It’s modelled after existing programs in similarly isolated winter cities Reykjavik, Iceland and Helsinki, Finland, where the design district concept has strengthened their civic image as design centres and tapped into new opportunities in the growing trend of cultural tourism.

Indeed, long-haul international travel has never been as affordable to both Canadians and to many foreigners as it is today, or as easy to plan online, offering opportunities for places considered “flyover country” to develop small but lucrative niches.

Tourism is like a library. Just as probably 99 percent of the books in the library are of absolutely no interest to 99 percent of the population, so too are 99 percent of places in the world likely of absolutely no interest to 99 percent of the world’s population.

But that one percent or even less who are attracted for some reason to that book on the shelf, or that place on the map — that’s what matters. One percent of Canada’s population, for example, is a still-substantial 350,000 people. Not that they’re all going to descend on Winnipeg all at once, or even visit at all. But if the narrative is right, they might consider the possibility.

Which brings me back to the “similarly isolated winter cities Reykjavik, Iceland and Helsinki, Finland” noted above.

In recent days, I actually seriously looked at the possibility of taking a trip to Helsinki this summer. Helsinki ticked a lot of the right boxes: the airfare-plus-accommodations price of a visit was competitive; the summer weather isn’t too bad; the seaside setting was appealing; the fact that many Finns speak English would have made communication easy; Finland is a safe country with a strong culture of trust; and Helsinki is considered by some visitors to be an underrated city that could become the next “hot” city to visit for a weekend city-break.

There was also something appealing about visiting a more normal and serene European city like Helsinki, not being in the mood just now for the Disneyland-for-Adults environment that can characterize A-List cities like Paris, Amsterdam and Rome. And I just plain like the Nordic countries, having been to Denmark and Sweden on two previous holidays. They’re not the cheapest places, but the Nordic countries are “Order People” (as opposed to “Chaos People”) cultures who like to keep things running smoothly, and you can afford to relax a bit more.

Helsinki didn’t quite make the cut, however, having decided on cozy Edinburgh instead. There was enough of a narrative there to justify spending two or three days in Helsinki in conjunction with somewhere else; but not enough of a narrative to justify spending a week there.*

Or, when I asked myself, “Why spend a week in Helsinki and not somewhere else?”, I couldn’t answer that question to my complete satisfaction, despite plenty of help from the Visit Helsinki web site and their Twitter feed, both of which are as good as any other tourism agency’s. (If you’re reading this, Visit Helsinki, cheer up: One year’s runner-up is often a future year’s winner.)

If it had been easier to pair Helsinki with somewhere or something else — nearby Tallinn, Estonia is apparently a great city, but suffering from weak air links for visitors from North America — the narrative might have been complete.

So too it might have been if the city offered a wider array of thematic walking tours, which is an area where Helsinki has a weak selection on a walk-up-pay-and-go basis. Cities that don’t have a good offering here are less competitive for the burgeoning solo-tourist market. These are people for whom spending an afternoon walking around town, conversing with fellow Canadians, Australians, Americans, Brits and other nationalities who share their interests, is far more fun than visiting yet another (*yawn*) famous museum.

Winnipeg faces those same challenges as Helsinki in attracting tourists. Tourists will come here if there is a good supporting narrative.

“I’m on a business trip” or “I’m visiting family” are perfectly good narratives that attract many people to this city every year. So too are “I’m 20 years old and I can’t legally drink at home in North Dakota,” or “Winnipeg has a hell of a lot more nightlife than Minot,” or even “Winnipeg is the back-of-beyond from where I live, and I just wanted to see what’s there.” (That, above all else, was what attracted me to the otherwise nice-but-not-spectacular Perth, Western Australia in 2006.)

Some people come from further afield because there are similarly strong narratives supporting their visit. These include, “We can’t do the kind of fishing and hunting we can do in Northern Manitoba back home in Germany,” or “I’ve been cooped up on this train from Toronto for 36 hours; let me off before I lose my goddamn mind!” That last one might be a bit crude, but it’s a fantastic rationale for spending a few hours being a tourist in Winnipeg.

The supporting narrative matters. Give people a convincing answer as to “Why should I spend a [day, weekend, week] in Winnipeg and not in [insert place name here]?” and their odds of actually paying a visit soar. It’s possible that 99 percent or more of the world’s population will never have a good answer to that, no matter what.

But, so what? Like that seemingly untouched book in the library, to someone somewhere, for the most complicated of personal reasons, that’s exactly what they’re looking for. The key is to find that person.

 

* – Indeed, Finland’s main tourist sources seem to be its immediate neighbours including Russia, for whom Finland is an easy weekend getaway; and the Japanese, for whom Helsinki is a logical gateway to other places in Europe thanks to the curvature of the Earth and Finnair’s use of Helsinki as a hub for connecting Europe and Asia. (There might also be some interesting underlying cultural reasons, discussed here, for the Japanese interest in Finland.)

2007 U.S. passport requirement sent Canadians out into the world

Difficult as it might be to imagine today, at one time Canadians did not even require passports to visit the United States. Then came the terrible events of Sept. 11, 2001, and it was soon clear that those days of going through little more than a casual inspection to cross the international border were coming to an end.

In 2004, the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States — better known as the 9/11 Commission — released its report on the Sept. 11 attacks, and recommended that Canadians, Mexicans and Bermudans be required to show passports or other secure documents proving their identity to enter the United States. The same rule would apply to Americans returning from those countries.

Prior to this, many Canadians had never owned a passport. It wasn’t necessary to have one if you were travelling to the United States — which offered a range of destinations from big cities to mountains to coastal resorts — so few bothered to apply for one.

In any case, obtaining a Canadian passport came with its own archaic rules which seemed to assume that most Canadians still lived in small towns, as we had a century earlier. For example, you were required to have a guarantor from among a limited list of professions deemed trustworthy by the federal government. If you didn’t personally know a professional engineer, local mayor, ordained minister or postmaster for at least two years, you could always ask your dentist or doctor for the favour.

But the Canadian government quickly realized a big change was coming, and began to simplify the process of applying for a passport.

The official announcement came on Nov. 22, 2006, in a U.S. State Department news release: “The requirement for citizens of the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Bermuda to present a passport to enter the United States when arriving by air from any part of the Western Hemisphere will begin on January 23, 2007.” It was expected that the passport requirement for land or sea crossings would take effect by Jan. 1, 2008.

In just a few years, Canadian passport ownership rates rose significantly. In 1999-2000, the Canadian government had issued a little over 1.5 million passports to a population of 30 million. In 2005-06, it issued more than 3.1 million passports.

Ten years after the U.S. passport requirement went into effect, Statistics Canada data shows that those new passports gave Canadians a case of wanderlust that still hasn’t subsided.

The red squares on the graph below show the number of Canadians returning from countries other than the United States annually between 1972 and 2015.

The green circles represent the growth trend line based on the period from 1987 (when airline deregulation allowed lower international fares to be offered) to 2001 (when the 9/11 attacks shattered the status quo).

The green circles suggest that the 1987 deregulation did not give Canadians a newfound urge to go out and explore the outside world. Even if you had no idea how many Canadians came home from abroad each year in the ’70s and ’80s, merely extending the 1987-2001 trend line back to 1972 would have given you a decent estimate. After 1987, the number of Canadians coming home from abroad each year continued growing until 2003 on a trajectory not much different from the 1972-1987 trajectory.

us-2007-passport-requirement-effects

In 2004, something changed. That year, the number of Canadians coming home from countries other than the U.S. was 13 percent higher than the year before — the first time since 1987 that year-over-year growth had exceeded 10 percent. In fact, during the preceding 10 years, five percent year-over-year growth had been more typical.

Thereafter, growth charged ahead at eight to nine percent per year until 2008, and then slowed to more anemic levels usually under five percent between 2009 and 2013. In 2014 and 2015, growth surged again at about 10 percent in both years.

By this time, the 1987-2001 trend line had clearly been departed from, and a new trend line had taken its place. Had nothing changed, the number of Canadians coming home from abroad should have risen from a little over five million in 2004 to about seven million in 2015.

Instead, it took only three years to hit seven million, and another year to hit eight million — a figure it otherwise should not have reached until about 2018 had nothing changed.

In reality, in 2015 alone, more than 11.5 million Canadians had come home from countries other than the U.S. Year-over-year growth in the first 10 months of 2016 was relatively weak — about three to four percent overall — so the final number for 2016 should be around 12 million once that information is available.

The 2007 U.S. passport requirement was a rule change that many Canadians weren’t fond of at first. But its introduction unleashed a desire among Canadians to go out and see the world beyond North America, hopefully coming home not just rested and relaxed, but with a bit of fresh thinking as well.

That’s cause enough to wish America’s passport requirement a happy 10th birthday indeed. Now if only we could do something about that stingy two weeks’ annual holiday thing we’ve got in our labour laws.

Modern-day air travel versus 1974: Packed in like cattle, but the mileage is better

If you want to find quick sympathy in Canada in January, you can complain about one of two things: the weather, or the airlines.

“Long-time air traveller Guilford Boyce says he misses the golden age of travel, when airlines went out of their way to make passengers feel special,” a Jan. 2 CTV News report noted, in a web article titled “Passengers lament ‘nickel-and-dime’ fees as airlines face thin profit margins”.

“Boyce says things have changed in the last few decades, to the point where he feels more like livestock every time he gets on a flight.”

Indeed, the days when airlines promoted themselves on the basis of their service — at least in Economy Class — are gone. To the extent that they still do compete on service, it’s usually in their expensive premium cabins.

But if we, the traveling public, are getting less pampered in our close-together Economy seats, at least we can claim that we are getting better mileage out of our dollars.

A web site called Departed Flights has posted a collection of image scans from old airline timetables. One of the more interesting scans is the Winnipeg page from a Northwest Orient timetable published in December, 1974. The Twin Cities-based airline, which dropped the “Orient” part of its name in the ‘80s and was absorbed into Delta Air Lines some seven years ago, published its each-way fares in its timetables.

This was possible at the time given that air fares were government-regulated, and set at fixed prices proportional to distance, even if these prices were at odds with supply and demand.

And those fares were usually eye-wateringly expensive by today’s standards.

Keen to get away from Winnipeg’s winter cold to someplace warmer, like California? A 1974 round-trip to Los Angeles or San Francisco would have set you back $290 Cdn. — or $1,366 in 2016 dollars. A round-trip to Tampa/St. Petersburg, Fla., meanwhile, would have cost the equivalent of $1,281 in 2016 dollars.

Currently, July 2017 round-trips between Winnipeg and both Florida and California are priced in the $700 to $800 range.

The only fare that is more expensive today than it was in 1974, after adjustment for inflation: the relatively short trips to Minneapolis/St. Paul and to Chicago; and presumably to Grand Forks.

 

Winnipeg to… 1974 one-way fare (CAD) 1974 round-trip fare 1974 fare in 2016 dollars Typical mid-week July 2017 fares as of Jan. 8, 2017 (CAD) 1974 fare would now pay for a round-trip to…
Boston $125 $250 $1,178 $340 London
Chicago $70.35 $140.70 $663 $699 Seattle
Grand Forks, N.D. $22.05 $44.10 $208 Not bookable, despite Delta serving both cities via MSP. Google Flights lists “travel agent” fares from $900 and up.
Los Angeles $145 $290 $1,366 $706 Honolulu
Miami $148 $296 $1,394 $751 Madrid
Minneapolis/St. Paul $46.20 $92.40 $435 $597 Montreal
New York City $111 $222 $1,046 $396 Shanghai
San Francisco $145 $290 $1,366 $760 Hong Kong
Tampa/St. Petersburg $136 $272 $1,281 $748 Lima

It’s also instructive to observe how much further one can go for the same amount of money in 2017 compared to 1974. The same amount that one would have needed to fly to New York City and back in 1974 — $222, equivalent to $1,046 in 2016 — would pay for a round-trip to Shanghai thanks to the current trans-Pacific fare wars.

As for that 1974 $296 round-trip fare to Miami — equivalent to $1,366 in 2016 dollars: Today, the same amount would pay for a round-trip journey to Madrid. And the $250 you would have spent in 1974 to go to Boston — $1,178 in 2016 dollars? That would get you to London and back today.

So, while passengers might be packed in closer together than ever, less fed and less pampered, today is still arguably the golden age of international travel. Never have so many been able to travel so many miles at such a low cost.

Who’s more likely to visit Canada in the summertime?

It’s early August, and that means that Canada’s tourism industry is in full swing, with not just many Canadians being on holiday, but many foreign visitors arriving as well. The single largest source of foreign visitors might not surprise you: in July and August 2015, 3,954,528 American visitors entered Canada by car, aircraft, train or ship according to Statistics Canada, more than 10 times the number of British (218,438), French (159,063), Chinese (158,496) or Australian high-season visitors (79,206).

But it might be surprising to learn that, on a per capita basis, the United States ranks fifth in terms of its citizens’ propensity to visit Canada during the summer high season, with 12.4 visitors to Canada per 1,000 U.S. residents. Residents of the French territory of St. Pierre and Miquelon, just off the coast of Newfoundland, made 672.9 visits to Canada per 1,000 residents, a not-so-surprising figure given the territory’s isolation. The other three among the top five were current or former British colonies linked to Canada by proximity and migration: Bermuda (73.1 visits per 1,000 residents), the Cayman Islands (32.7) and the Barbados (13.2).

Foreigners entering Canada in July and August 2015, per 1,000 home country residents. Top 25 countries on a per-capita basis; countries with fewer than 1,000 visitors to Canada excluded. Visitor information source: Statistics Canada CANSIM tables 427-0003 (non-U.S.), 427-0004 (U.S.) (Click to enlarge)

Foreigners entering Canada in July and August 2015, per 1,000 home country residents. Top 25 countries on a per-capita basis; countries with fewer than 1,000 visitors to Canada excluded. Visitor information source: Statistics Canada CANSIM tables 427-0003 (non-U.S.), 427-0004 (U.S.) (Click to enlarge)

Of the long-haul markets, Hong Kong residents and the Swiss (5.6 and 5.3, respectively) showed the strongest interest in visiting Canada in the summer of 2015. Hong Kong residents were most likely motivated by personal ties to Canada, given that the severely undervalued Hong Kong dollar would make Canada seem unusually expensive (while making Hong Kong better value for Canadians heading over there). For the Swiss, however, the drastically overvalued Swiss Franc makes the rest of the world a bargain, Canada included.

If distance, exchange rates and migration patterns all shape foreigners’ willingness to visit Canada, so too it seems does language. Making more than three visits per 1,000 residents, the New Zealanders, British, Australians and Irish show a greater propensity to visit Canada than do residents of, say, most European countries — even the economically healthy Nordic ones — with the exception of the Icelanders, the well-off Luxembourgeois and the aforementioned Swiss.

Londoners use hostage-taking to criticize restaurant’s food

For at least a few minutes on Feb. 24, the world’s eyes turned to London as news broke of a hostage-taking at a Bella Italia restaurant near Leicester Square — a landmark location in a global business and cultural capital long vulnerable to terrorism.

After a few minutes, the world’s nerves eased as it was learned that, although a serious crime, the hostage-taking was neither technically a terrorism incident nor a long-running stand-off. As The Telegraph reported:

Police said that a man with a knife held a woman against her will inside the restaurant, with two other people also inside.

A spokesman for the Metropolitan Police said the incident was not terrorist related.

All the people involved are believed to know each other and there have been suggestions on social media that the man is a disgruntled former employee.

Scotland Yard later said the incident had been been resolved and a man had been detained by police. There were no reported injuries.

Yet a strange thing happened on Twitter during and after the incident. In addition to many tweets passing the news on to others and expressing wishes for a peaceful end to the incident, Londoners used Twitter to express their frustration with the Bella Italia restaurant chain.

Bella Italia is roughly equivalent to Canada’s Olive Garden chain: family-friendly, but bland, unromantic and a bit cheesy according to reviews. As Londoners expressed their views on the chain, Twitter searches for Bella Italia quickly filled with absurdity, humour and snark:

Now you know where not to go for good Italian food in London.

NewLeaf offers low fares, but to the wrong places

Longing to get away from this terrible winter weather to someplace warm and sunny? Well, here is a deal for you: $410 airfare per person for a quick southern getaway, leaving Friday, Feb. 12 and returning Monday, Feb. 15.

One catch: You need to be in the U.K. to take advantage of this low round-trip easyJet fare between Bristol and Malaga, in southern Spain.

Darn! There’s always a catch, isn’t there?

Europe’s cheap flights have been the envy of Canadians for years, even as Europeans ranted bitterly about poor customer service and “gotcha” penalties that brought the total cost almost up to the prices charged by full-service airlines.

A new travel company called NewLeaf — a nominal airline selling seats on Boeing 737-400s operated by Flair Air, a B.C.-based charter operator — proposes to bring European-style low fares to Canadian skies when it launches next month. The carrier will link seven Canadian cities,  with most flights operating only once or twice a week: Abbotsford, Kelowna, Saskatoon, Regina, Winnipeg, Hamilton and Halifax.

The fares are indeed attractive. As of Sunday, Jan. 17, a Mar. 2-9 Winnipeg-Abbotsford round trip sells for just $232.75, taxes and fees included.

Like other ultra low cost carriers, NewLeaf will make its real money from all the things you can sell or charge passengers for after they’ve made that modest financial commitment to be aboard the flights: bag fees that include charges for your carry-ons, seat selection fees, food and drink sales, and so on.

But NewLeaf won’t find it easy to apply the Ryanair/easyJet methodology to the Canadian market.

The European ultra low cost carriers have succeeded by selling the lingering sex appeal of travel: dreams of long weekends in Italy, stag parties in Estonia, second homes in the south of France, and trips to watch a favourite football team play abroad.

NewLeaf’s launch destinations, by comparison, lack that sort of excitement. Hamilton Airport is about 85 kilometres from both Toronto and Niagara Falls, both of which are interesting enough. But if you’ve been to each two or three times, as many Canadians have been, it’s difficult to justify an additional visit when you can go somewhere new instead. The same applies to Vancouver, which is about 70 kilometres west of Abbotsford.

Neither Hamilton nor Abbotsford nor the other launch cities (with the possible exception of Halifax, which offers a little bit of historical charm as one of Canada’s older cities) are particularly worth visiting for those who otherwise have no connection to the place.

Where could a Canadian ultra low cost carrier go that would allow it to sell the sex appeal of travel the same way that Ryanair and easyJet do? Since these carriers try to get their crews home every night to avoid the cost of putting them up in hotels, they would need to be within a few hours’ flying time of Winnipeg, and be the kinds of places people dream of going. A few suggestions:

 

  • Florida: A favourite with families. Since Winnipeg Airport has U.S. Customs and Border Protection pre-clearance gates, NewLeaf would be able to land at whichever airport offers the airline the best terms: most likely one of Orlando’s airports for the city’s central location within the state and proximity to Disney World. Approximate flying time from Winnipeg: 4 hours.

 

  • Las Vegas: The original Sin City, still popular after all these years with Canadians looking to party. Plenty of competition on this route, but also plenty of price-sensitive demand. Approximate flying time from Winnipeg: 3.25 hours.

 

  • New Orleans: Routinely one of North America’s Top 10 urban tourism draws for its rich history, gastronomy and, of course, the annual party known as Mardi Gras. Approximate flying time from Winnipeg: 3.5 hours.

 

  • New York City: One of the great cities of the world; well worth a visit, even if accommodations are notoriously expensive. Metropolitan New York’s three main airports — JFK, La Guardia and Newark — can be challenging places for an airline to get a landing slot at, but alternatives are available at Westchester County airport (35 miles north of Midtown Manhattan, but with limited public transportation links) and at Long Island MacArthur Airport (about 55 miles east, but close to the Ronkonkoma train station, which offers direct rail service to Grand Central Terminal). Approximate flying time from Winnipeg: 3.25 hours.

 

  • Quebec City: Canada’s most European city, likely its most romantic, and yet one that many Canadians have not visited. A week might be a bit long to spend there, but a long weekend visit would be ideal. Approximate flying time from Winnipeg: 3.25 hours.

 

  • San Francisco and the Bay Area: Historic San Francisco is a major tourist draw in its own right, and only 60 miles from the Napa Valley for wine connoisseurs. An airline would be able to shop around at multiple airports for the best deal, including Oakland and San Jose. Approximate flying time from Winnipeg: 3.75 hours.

 

  • Southern California: Like Florida, southern California is popular with families and those enamoured with the region’s mild year-round climate and proximity to the sea. There are many airports that a low-cost carrier could shop around at for a deal, including Santa Ana/Orange County, Ontario, San Diego, Burbank, Palm Springs and Santa Barbara. Approximate flying time from Winnipeg: 3.75 hours.

A quick guide to Stockholm

My first encounter with a born-and-raised Stockholmer, while on a walking tour of Potsdam, Germany in 2012, wouldn’t have initially led me to choose his hometown, which he described as “boring”, as a travel destination. But after hearing great things over the intervening years about the city from non-Stockholmers such as Pedro and Jesse T., and seeing it ranked competitively on VirtualTourist’s listing of most-popular European cities, I was sold.

One evening in May, after careful deliberation about where and when I would go on my annual urban holiday, and mentally asking myself “Are you sure?” one last time and self-answering in the affirmative, I clicked a “Submit” button on Lufthansa’s web site. That was it: I would be off to Stockholm in mid-July.

Now back in Winnipeg, I have no regrets.

Contrary to the Stockholmer’s advice three years ago, what I found was a city that was far from boring. Not as sexy or dramatic as London, Paris or Berlin perhaps, but a pleasant and lively city where I found enough to do to pass seven days without much effort; a city in which the nearby kebab shop is still doing brisk business after 11 p.m. on a Saturday night, and in which I could go in search of something fun or interesting to do at 8 p.m. on a Sunday night and find it easily. (If that Stockholmer I met thought a city where you could do that was “boring”, God knows how he would have described the vast majority of North American cities. “Comatose”, perhaps?)

Q & A — Stockholm, Sweden

Q. Why Stockholm?

A. Stockholm is a good choice for those who have already seen some of the grand cities of Europe, such as London, Paris and Berlin, and are now looking for a city that has many of the best things about European urban life — the cafe culture, the history, the nightlife — without being a Disneyland for Adults. In other words, someplace interesting enough to be a bit touristy, but not completely and grotesquely overrun by tourists.

Q. What are the best things to see and do in Stockholm?

A. Different people will have different interests, of course. For the most memorable Stockholm experiences, I would recommend:

a.) Check out the Vasa. The Vasa Museum basically has just one exhibit: the ship by that name which sunk in Stockholm harbour on its maiden voyage in 1628. It had the good fortune to sink in the harbour’s brackish waters, which meant that this elaborately designed wooden ship was in unusually good condition when the Swedes raised it from the sea bed in the ’60s and put back together to become a museum piece. It’s a rare opportunity to see an original 17th century ship up close, and the story of ego and incompetence that led the giant ship (by 1628 standards) to literally flop over on its side just 1.3 kilometres into what was supposed to be a journey to Poland is an entertaining one.

b.) Take each of Free Tour Stockholm‘s three urban walking tours. One covers Norrmalm, the island on which the modern city centre is located. The second covers Gamla Stan, Stockholm’s “old town” neighbourhood (and the one area which is “overrun by tourists”). The third covers Södermalm, which was considered Stockholm’s shabbiest neighbourhood 20 years ago, but which is now known as a “hipster haven”. The guides work for tips (from what I’ve seen, 50 to 100 Swedish krona, or $7.50 to $15 Cdn., seems typical) and each tour takes about 90 minutes. A great way to learn more about Stockholm and its history, and to meet travelers from all over the world.

c.) Take a fika break. In fact, take all the fika breaks you want. Taking some time to relax and enjoy a coffee and pastry while reading a book or watching the world go by, an experience known as fika, a casual term for coffee, is a beloved part of Swedish culture. In Stockholm, you’re rarely far from an independent cafe or even a franchise outlet such as Espresso House or Wayne’s Coffee, which sell quality coffee and pastries. (Their offerings make Starbucks, which has an unusually weak presence in Stockholm, look third-rate by comparison.) Budget a rather steep 60 to 80 krona ($9 to $12 Cdn.) for the experience, which is worth it.

Keep in mind that space is at a premium in Europe’s densely populated cities; thus you might be expected to sit in very close proximity to strangers during peak times, and will not be allowed the vast personal space that North Americans are used to. Respecting others’ privacy (more on that later) is important here.

(Cautionary note: Be careful about using the term “fika” around Germans, as the pronunciation is very close to that of “ficken”, their slang term for sexual intercourse.)

d.) Enjoy the city’s parks. Kungsträdgården, a fairly small park in the city centre, is a popular place to hang out and people-watch, and frequently hosts free concerts, festivals and other events. The much larger Djurgården, south and east of the city centre, is akin to Assiniboine Park with harbour views.

e.) Learn how those Scandinavians got to be so on-the-ball about everything. Those wanting to learn more about how Sweden has become synonymous with the sane, ethical, earnestly responsible government that is becoming an endangered species in North America might be interested in taking in a tour of City Hall and of the Riksdag, Sweden’s national parliament.

f.) Enjoy the nightlife. If you’re into nightclubbing, Stockholm has its fair share of clubs filled with people who could pass for fashion models. But if that’s not your thing, no problem. During a summer evening, there’s a good chance something will be going on at Kungsträdgården, or that Drottninggatan, the pedestrian mall that serves as Stockholm’s main retail street, will be full of people and buskers. Outside the old PUB department store on Drottninggatan, one could spend half an hour or more many evenings relaxing and watching Mareks Radzēvičs, a Latvian musician, play the cello. If you have a few krona to spare, toss it into his cello case. Continue south on Drottninggatan toward the Riksdag and the Old Town, where there will be plenty more activity.

g.) Go for a sauna. It’s a Nordic tradition, it’s very relaxing, and many Swedish hotels offer them. In fact, it’s rather amazing that it has never really caught on in Canada, given our similar climate. And since part of traveling is experiencing things you wouldn’t experience in your home town, don’t freak out if the sauna is mixed-gender-nude — just mind the etiquette rules that you’ll be expected to adhere to.

If you’re an ABBA fan, by all means check out the ABBA Museum. I avoided this one after being warned by an Australian expat living in Sweden that he was ready to puncture his eardrums after two hours.

Skansen, a historical park depicting how Swedes lived in the olden days, is apparently hugely popular among those who can tolerate large numbers of families with children.

Q. When is the best time to go?

A. Summer. Stockholm sits slightly above 59° North latitude, making it one of the most northerly large cities in the world. In fact, it’s further north than Churchill. At this latitude, the summer days are even longer than they are in Winnipeg, while the winter days are even shorter and darker. Hence, Stockholmers make the best of their summers, which are cloudier than they are in Winnipeg, but generally mild.

Hotel prices tend to be a bit better in the summer, too, as there are fewer business travelers around and there is more competition for price-sensitive holiday travelers.

Q. What is the weather like?

A. As noted, summer days are mild: typically with highs in the low to mid-twenties Celsius during the day, and lows in the low to mid-teens at night. It rains periodically, but not too heavily or frequently.

Q. Are things really expensive there?

A. Stockholm is one of the more expensive cities to visit, but there are ways to mitigate the costs. Find a hotel with a complimentary or affordable buffet breakfast (the ubiquitous, Swedish-based Scandic hotel chain is a safe bet), and eat breakfast like a king so that all you will need is a modest lunch later on. Go for a proper meal later in the day, at a price which is about 25 to 50 percent higher than Winnipeg levels; avoid progressively snacking throughout the day (outside of fika breaks), as the markup over standard Winnipeg prices is higher, and could end up costing as much as a single restaurant meal.

Also be price-aware about buying alcohol or taking taxis, as the prices are typically at least 50 percent greater than Winnipeg prices. See Numbeo.com’s Cost of Living Comparison for more information.

Q. I heard that the taxes are high? Is that true?

A. If you had a hissy fit over the Manitoba Provincial Sales Tax increase, you’ll go into shock over Swedish sales tax, which is 25 percent on many goods. Don’t feel too bad for the Swedes, though, as they do get their money’s worth: car ownership in Stockholm is largely optional even for families with children due to the city’s walkability and the country’s excellent public transportation network, qualified post-secondary students pay no tuition, and the country is ranked near the top in everything from economic competitiveness to freedom from corruption to peacefulness.

But — it is possible for you as a Canadian to get a sales tax refund on purchases that you are taking back to Canada with you, as long as you are carrying them in your carry-on baggage. I’ve never applied for this rebate because: a.) It’s a bit of a hassle, and requires you to have sufficient time at whichever airport you’re exiting the Schengen “border-free Europe” zone at, and, b.) I’m getting a benefit from the safe streets and excellent infrastructure that European cities provide, so it’s not like I’m paying but getting nothing. But if you’ve got a bit of extra airport time and some space in your carry-ons for your purchases, go for it.

Note that in Sweden, sales taxes are included in advertised prices. The price you see is the price you pay.

Q. What is the best way to get there?

A. Since there are no direct flights between Canada and Sweden, you will need to travel via a third country. I would recommend taking Lufthansa’s overnight Toronto-Munich flight, and then making a quick one-hour connection to their mid-morning Munich-Stockholm flight. This is for four reasons:

a.) It gets you into Stockholm earlier, and thus less exhausted, than almost any other option;

b.) Munich is one of Europe’s best airports for making a connection at. I was able to disembark my flight from Canada, clear Immigration, go through airport security, and then walk at a relaxed pace to the departure gate for the flight to Stockholm in 29 minutes flat;

c.) In the unlikely event that you do miss your connection, the next non-stop flight is only about three hours later and would still get you into Stockholm by mid-afternoon;

d.) Lufthansa is a good, reliable airline. I will candidly admit that getting an unexpected and unexplained free upgrade to Business Class on the flight back to Canada makes me a big Lufthansa fan; but I’ve also spot-checked their on-time performance on Flightradar24.com, and estimated that only about five percent of Lufthansa flights arrive more than 30 minutes late — as good as it gets in the business, and a good indication of a company that has its act together.

Alternately, KLM’s Amsterdam hub and SAS’s Copenhagen hub, the latter served by SAS’s Canadian partner Air Canada, should be among the better airports to make connections at. Avoid tight connections at the sprawling Frankfurt-Main, and avoid all connections at much-despised airports such as Chicago O’Hare, any New York City-area airport, London Heathrow or Paris Charles de Gaulle.

Q. Is Sweden part of the “border-free Europe”?

A. Yes, Sweden is part of the Schengen Area, in which people are allowed to move around — even to take up residence in a different country — with minimal hassle. For example, some people live in Sweden but work in Denmark, commuting daily across a bridge that connects the two countries, often without having to even report to a customs officer.

What does that mean for you as a Canadian? You will need to clear Immigration (a.k.a., Passport Control) at the first Schengen Area country that you arrive in; most likely Germany, the Netherlands or Denmark. Since Canadian tourists are generally considered low-risk, it is unlikely that you will be asked more than just the basic questions: the purpose of your visit, how long you intend to stay for, where you plan to visit, etc. Unlike Canada and the U.K., which is not a Schengen country, most if not all Schengen countries do not require you to fill out a paper arrival card or customs declaration before landing.

If you connect through London Heathrow, you should not need to go through British immigration formalities as long as you stay within the secured International areas of the airport. This is easiest if both your inbound and outbound flights arrive and depart from the Star Alliance’s Terminal 2 or British Airways’ Terminal 5.

Even if you are arriving from another Schengen country, you will need to clear Customs on arrival in Sweden. This is a less bureaucratic and less interrogative experience than it is in Canada and the U.S. Like much of Europe, Sweden uses a Green Channel/Red Channel system: walk out of the baggage claim area through the Green Channel exit if you have nothing to declare, or walk into the Red Channel area and speak to a customs officer if you do. (On my arrival in Stockholm, a couple of uniformed officers stood off to the side scanning the crowd. The Green Channel exit was unstaffed, which is not unusual at European airports. Arriving passengers can be spot-checked, however, so don’t try sneaking things through.)

Q. Does Sweden use the Euro as its currency?

A. No, Sweden continues to use its traditional currency, the Krona (shorthand: SEK). One Swedish krona is equal to about 15 cents Cdn. Therefore, $100 Cdn. is equal to about 667 SEK, and 100 SEK is equal to about $15 Cdn.

Q. How much cash should I get?

A. At least 50 percent more than you would go through in Canada during the same period of time. For example, if your cash spending in Canada is about $80 per week, get at least $120 Cdn. worth of Swedish krona, or 800 SEK, before departure or just after arrival.

If you prefer to use plastic, Sweden is a credit/debit card-friendly country, provided that you have a chip card and a four-digit PIN. (Longer or shorter PINs might be problematic.)

Q. What is the best way to get into the city from the airport?

A. Flygbussarna‘s coaches offer the best combination of price and convenience. Coaches to and from Stockholm’s Arlanda airport, 45 kilometres by road north of the city centre, run every 10 minutes during much of the day for $30 Cdn. per person round-trip. The drive takes about 45 minutes. Tickets can be purchased online before leaving Canada.

Commuter trains run every 30 minutes between the airport and Stockholm’s central railway station. How much you will pay depends on whether you buy a single-trip ticket or a multi-day travelcard: a one-way ticket into town costs $20.25 Cdn. per person, while a seven-day travelcard, valid for bus, metro, tram and train travel throughout the Stockholm area with airport privileges, should cost a total of about $73.50 if my calculations are correct. This is an option if you are travelling light — commuter trains might be crowded — and intend to use public transportation frequently during your stay.

Arlanda Express runs swanky, high-speed trains that cover the 45 kilometres between the airport and the city centre in just 20 minutes. But they run at 15-minute intervals, slightly less often than the slower Flygbussarna coaches, and are vastly more expensive at $79.50 Cdn. per person round-trip. Not really worth it unless you want to take a high-speed train just for kicks.

Taxis between the airport and the city cost about $75 Cdn. each way: worthwhile for a family, but couples and solo travelers will get better value by taking a coach if they’re staying at a hotel within the city centre. (Or try your luck with Uber.)

Q. Where would be a good place to stay?

A. In or near Norrmalm is your best bet. This will put you within walking distance of much of what the city has to offer, and close to Central Station and metro and tram stops for trips further afield.

Staying in the centre of the city, even if it’s more expensive than staying in a suburb, has two advantages. First, you can drop off any purchases you make during the day, or run back quickly to pick up or drop off a rain jacket or umbrella. Second, you can more easily return to use the toilet, bearing in mind that public toilets in Europe are not always as easy to find and sometimes are pay-to-use. (Even in the expensive NK department store, it costs 10 SEK, or $1.50 Cdn., to use the restrooms.)

Q. Is it safe in Stockholm?

A. Yes, quite safe, though some would recommend being cautious around metro stations, streets outside of pubs, and the Sergels Torg sunken plaza at night. There are only about 90 homicides per year in the entire nation of Sweden out of a population of 9.5 million; this would be roughly equivalent to Winnipeg experiencing just 6-7 homicides per year.

Visitors’ primary concern should be in not making themselves easy targets for pickpockets and bag-snatchers. Take only what you need for the day with you, and leave the rest in your hotel room safe; and familiarize yourself with these anti-theft tips from Frommer’s and the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Police.

Don’t bother with the strange new trend of wearing your backpack on your belly instead of on your back. It looks ridiculous; it automatically flags you as a tourist who is likely carrying more valuables around than the typical local person and who won’t be in town long enough to see justice carried out; and if you have your passport and your credit and debit cards all in one backpack, you’ll be royally screwed if a thief does get ahold of it. (For that second reason — not flagging yourself as a tourist — I recommend not sporting a Canadian flag while traveling. Or wearing white sneakers, which is apparently another give-away that someone is a North American.)

Q. What is the best way to eat affordably in Stockholm?

A. Stockholm’s Middle Eastern eateries offer meat and vegetables in good portions for moderate prices. A hearty Shish Tawouk plate at the STHLM Bistro in central Stockholm costs only 99 SEK ($15 Cdn.), and the city’s various kebab places offer similar value.

Unlike Canada, advertised Swedish prices include sales taxes, so the price you see is the price you pay. As restaurant servers in Sweden are relatively well-compensated compared to their Canadian counterparts, tips are normally limited to rounding the bill up to the nearest multiple of 10 or 20 Swedish krona ($1.50 to $3.00 Cdn.), which usually works out to five or 10 percent. A Canadian-style 15 percent tip would be a bit extravagant, akin to giving a Canadian server a 30 percent tip.

Avoid restaurants in Gamla Stan, the touristy old-town area, which are less reliant on repeat business than restaurants elsewhere in the city and therefore have less of a vested interest in your being satisfied. Instead, eat where the Stockholmers eat, which is basically in any other part of the city.

Q. Should I rent a car?

A. No, unless you’re planning to travel out into rural areas poorly served by Sweden’s excellent public transport system. Stockholm is by no means a “car town”, which is a good thing as a car town is a dull town. Parking for one hour on a weekday afternoon in central Stockholm typically costs $9 to $13.50 Cdn., vehicles entering the city are subject to congestion charges of up to $9 Cdn. per vehicle per day, and Stockholm gas prices are currently about $2.15 Cdn. per litre. And for all that expense, driving won’t save you much time: a trip from Central Station to the hip Södermalm area, for instance, takes 10-20 minutes both by car and by Metro.

In fact, while in Stockholm, you might notice that a fair bit of freedom can be gained by not driving. As a pedestrian or public transport user, you’ll be free to have a drink or two even on an empty stomach without worry, you can wander more because you won’t be tethered by the need to stay close to where you parked your vehicle, and going out on the town will be less expensive and involve less effort.

Q. Do people speak English there?

A. Approximately 86 percent of Swedes are able to speak English well enough to carry on a conversation, and many will quickly switch to English if they detect that you are not a Swede. It is a second language, though, so don’t assume that they know jargon or nuances that most Canadians would know: keep your English simple and direct.

As always when traveling in a foreign country, it is considered good form to know and to use basic niceties such as hello (hej), please and thank you (tack in both instances) and pardon me (ursäkta mig). Hej is pronounced identically to the English word hey, tack is pronounced the same way as the English word by the same spelling, and ursäkta mig is pronounced ur-shack-ta mye.

Q. Are the people friendly?

A. Stockholmers can seem rather aloof by Winnipeg standards, but also calmer and more polite. As in the other Nordic countries, respect for others’ privacy is both offered and expected, and asking questions that cross that privacy threshold — even questions we take for granted such as “What did you do this weekend?” — might be seen as impolite in their view.

This can have its benefits however. For example, in a Swedish restaurant, servers will not hang around your table, and might not even approach unless they see some indication that you wish to speak to them or that you’ve finished the meal. While this might be considered poor service in Canada, it is considered good service in Sweden, as the server is making a point of respecting your privacy.

But once again, Swedes are remarkably polite and civil, and you can count on being treated courteously wherever you go.

Q. How do they feel about Canadians?

A. Swedes aren’t the type to offer unsolicited opinions to strangers, so it’s not readily apparent. My best guess is that it’s probably a benignly neutral view, possibly leaning positive — but that they don’t really give us much more thought than we give them.

Q. Do people really dress up nicely in Stockholm?

A. They tend to be conservative-casual dressers: well-fitting, unostentatious, neutral or moderately coloured clothes are fashionable; excessively baggy or flashy clothes are not. Jeans and t-shirts are fine as long as they meet this criteria. Leave the sweat pants at home, as you would probably be considered an oddball for wearing such clothing in public in Stockholm, and in much of the world outside of North America for that matter.

Stockholm in Images

Twenty years ago, Södermalm was the last place one would go as a tourist in Stockholm. Today, it’s a must-see neighbourhood due to its historic character and its status as a “hipster haven”.

Gamla Stan, Stockholm’s oldest neighbourhood, can be annoyingly touristy — but also beautiful.

Central Stockholm’s Kungsträdgården Park is the site of many free events, and a fine place for people watching.

Head down to Hotorget Plaza in Stockholm’s Norrmalm area on Sundays to experience a genuine European market.

I wonder what kind of reaction the owner would get driving that middle van around Winnipeg?

[youtube:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vjJmtw0i9-U%5D

Further reading:

The Canadian government’s travel information page for Sweden

Kwintessential’s guide to Swedish etiquette