Tromsø has an increase in the number of aurora borealis tourists - partly because major international newspapers have featured articles about the aurora in northern Norway, and partly because of the amazing photos and videos that have gone viral on social media.
“Many people abroad have probably heard about the northern lights before, but now they see that this winter is a good time to come to northern Norway to see them,” says Per Helge Nylund, a communication consultant at the Tromsø Museum.
“Some time ago we realized that visitors have many different ideas about what the northern lights really are, and there was a great deal of confusion," says Nylund.
Visit Tromsø started courses for employees in hotels, guide companies and other tourism businesses. Northern lights researcher Asgeir Brekke and Nylund participated in the training, which improved the quality of the information given to aurora tourists.
The Tromsø Museum sells a package for tourists called “Embrace the Aurora”, which includes a guided tour, an information folder and a film about the northern lights, and tickets to the Polar Museum. Nylund says that the package is popular and that the museum will soon start handing out diplomas as proof that participants have been educated about the aurora.
Visitors can also see an exhibit that explains the physics behind this breath-taking natural phenomenon.
Nylund describes one memorable experience when he met a Japanese visitor who was in Tromsø on his third tour, hoping to see the magical lights.
“We were out in the woods at night, it was cloudy and we could only see a small greenish glimmer behind the grey. To me it looked like a slightly mouldy cloud, but he was thrilled just to see a little colour change. I later got an email explaining he could not return this year because he had spent his money on getting married – but that he would probably come back another time,” says Nylund.
The Tromsø Museum can actually create an aurora indoors. The museum owns something that Nylund believes that no other museum has, a terrella, a small magnetized model that is used to represent the Earth. The terrella enables the museum to create its own artificial aurora.
Kristian Birkeland, the pioneering Norwegian physicist, used a terrella in 1913 in an experiment that illustrated how an aurora takes place.
“Regardless of the season and the weather conditions, we always have a northern lights guarantee at the museum,” says Nylund.
An intoxicating experience
Victoria Bakken, general manager of Visit Tromsø, agrees that visitors can’t be guaranteed that they will see the aurora, but adds that the most skilled guides in Tromsø have a ‘hit-rate’ of 75 per cent.
“We recommend that visitors take the time to be here for four or five days and that they go on a guided tour,” she says.
Bakken says that Visit Tromsø experienced a doubling of bookings for aurora-related activities last season and has no doubts there will be even more in 2013.
“Usually we say that the aurora season begins on November 1, but in 2012 we had tours in September,” she said, adding that the tourist office expects 6000-7000 bookings for aurora-related activities this season.
Northern lights tourists flock to Tromsø from around the globe, with almost half of them from the UK. Last winter, however, Visit Tromsø had visitors from 66 different countries. Bakken observes that it is difficult for residents of northern Norway to understand how powerful it is for someone to see the northern lights for the first time.
“The other day I saw a couple from France at the tour desk, which had seen the northern lights the night before. They looked almost intoxicated."
In 2008, the actress Joanna Lumley, known for her performance in the TV series “Absolutely Fabulous”, came to northern Norway and Svalbard with a BBC film team to see the northern lights. Her visit did a great deal to promote the idea of travelling to experience the aurora. But the first celebrity tourist to visit the north was probably the French prince, Louis Philippe.
Asgeir Brekke, professor emeritus at University of Tromsø's Department of Physics and Technology, said the prince, who had to flee France during the Revolution in 1789, travelled incognito, including during a visit to northern Norway. When he landed in Finnmark, he fell in love with the region’s natural beauty and landscape.
The prince returned to France in the 1830s and ascended to the throne. He then decided to equip a ship for an expedition to northern Norway and Svalbard. The ship, which he called La Recherche (“The Investigation”), sailed north and landed a group in Alta. Their assignment was to study the northern lights, including measuring their altitude. They also had artists who drew the northern lights. The expedition and the artwork did a great deal to create interest abroad in the northern lights and northern Norway even then.
Brekke has worked at the Auroral Observatory in Tromsø since 1966. He thinks it’s great that aurora tourism is flourishing.
“I've worked on this topic for nearly 50 years and it has been my dream that the northern lights would get better recognition. Here we have worked with and sold the concept of ‘the midnight sun’ for a hundred years - but the midnight sun is only the sun. The northern lights are unique. Think about it – only about one 6000th of the world’s population can experience the northern lights regularly and live in a place where it is a natural part of the environment,” he says.
If you’re in Tromsø at night and wonder if it’s worth putting on your warm clothes to go out in the dark, you can now check online first to see if the aurora is out dancing.
Magnar Gullikstad Johnsen, a researcher at the Tromsø Geophysical Observatory, says that the Observatory has installed an auroral camera on its roof. It has a fish-eye lens that provides an image of the whole sky, and the image is updated automatically every two minutes.
Johnsen is often out and looking for the northern lights, and says that even though he has worked extensively with the science related to the phenomenon, he has not lost his wonder at the experience.
“The northern lights are perhaps the most spectacular natural phenomenon that exists, and I would love if everyone could come and experience it. I’ve never heard of anyone who has been disappointed,” he said.