Sweden. It's a country with a sterling reputation in many regards – green, clean, and the birthplace of Abba, Avicii, and IKEA. It's a hub for groundbreaking research, cutting edge technology, and the best of the music industry.
But it's also a country that many cannot place on a map, and which still frequently gets confused with Switzerland. It's frequently left out of tourists' ”European trips”, left on the far northern fringes of Europe and considered to be out of the way.
But now the Swedes are working very hard to change that. For Sweden to continue its trajectory of success in recent years, the country needs better connections to the rest of the world.
”Since 2012 we have gone from 19 lines of direct flight from Arlanda to 31,” said Torborg Chetkovich, CEO of Sweden's state-owned airport operator Swedavia. ”Now we just have to continue on that path. Arlanda should be the leading Scandinavian airport by 2020.”
Swedavia has been hosting multiple events at Almedalen on just that topic: the potential of better connectivity for creating jobs and strengthening connections between Sweden and the United States.
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The American Chamber of Commerce and the US Embassy were just two of many partners involved, as well as Visit Sweden, Stockholm Business Region, the Swedish Institute, and SAS. Each representative shared what they thought were the benefits and challenges of increased connectivity, and how the organizations can continue to work together in the future.
'Sweden is totally dependent on interacting with the world'
“I probably have the world's most exciting job,” remarked Sweden's Minister of Infrastructure, Anna Johansson, as she climbed onstage at Gate Almedalen.
“It's more fun to be Infrastructure Minister than Prime Minister!”
The comment was met with genuine laughter from the audience of businesspeople, media, and diplomats, but Johansson quickly changed gear into more serious territory.
“Sweden is a small, cold, sparsely populated country on the edge of the world,” she stated bluntly.
“We are, have always been, and will always be totally dependent on how well we can access and interact with the world around us.”
Johansson said it was “critical” that Sweden develop direct routes to Asia and other markets.
”We need to develop a strategy based on not just infrastructure but also business and tourism,” she said. ”We need to work from all perspectives and make Arlanda Airport more attractive for airlines abroad.”
However, in the face of tough competition with neighbouring Denmark, Johansson was quick to point out that the fight for better connections should not be viewed as a contest.
“It's not about a competition with Copenhagen,” she told The Local.
“That's a bit childish. It's simply about 'Sweden needing more connectivity and making Stockholm a better place to come to.”
An incredible chance for a “young” tourism nation
Thomas Brühl, CEO of Visit Sweden, agreed.
”Things are going very well for the Swedish tourism industry right now,” he said. ”And to continue that, we must work with connectivity. It's important to connect people.”
Sweden's improved connections over the last few years have certainly had an impact on the tourism industry.
The number of foreign tourists to Sweden increased by 12 percent just last year, Brühl said. But he added that the work is far from over.
“This growth will not continue unless we continue to work with these three different aspects: Connectivity, international marketing, and destinations and experiences here.”
The Swedish flight sector generates some 79 billion kronor each year, which is just over 2 percent of Sweden's GDP. By 2030 the sector could easily grow to encompass 131 billion kronor and create an additional 43,000 jobs - but only with the necessary support from politicians.
”For every new route, all the new frequencies we can add, jobs are created as well,” Chetkovich said. ”Jobs here, but also on the other side.”
For a small nation such as Sweden, ignoring the potential of that market is not an option, Brühl said.
”Sweden has an incredible chance here. We are still a young nation when it comes to tourism, and connectivity is one of the keys to success.”
Sweden-US relations 'have never been stronger'
As American Ambassador to Sweden Mark Brzezinski took the stage, he observed that another success: the recent announcement that US preclearance will soon be a reality at Arlanda Airport.
”The relationship between America and Sweden has never been as productive as it is today,” he declared. ”And the most important part of that is people-to-people connections.”
Brzezinski said that the preclearance facility will be “transformational”, saving ”two hours of your life” each time someone travels to the US from Sweden.
“People travelling from Sweden will be able to arrive in America's airports like an American does,” he remarked. “This is the opportunity to create the airport of the future.”
Brzezinski and Swedavia CEO Torborg Chetkovich agreed that the facility could be a reality within 12 to 18 months, and at this point it's just a matter of getting the logistics and paperwork in order.
“We could be having a ribbon-cutting ceremony this time next year,” Brzezinski said, adding that Sweden and the US were perfect partners.
“It's the gift that keeps on giving in terms of people-to-people connections, and Sweden is good at getting things done.”
While the work is far from over, Chetkovich agreed that the work of the various organizations together, under the umbrella of Connect Sweden, has had a huge impact.
“It has taken four years of hard work to make this happen,” she said. ”And with so much strong support from the US Embassy and our own government...Together we are bringing the world closer.”
This article was produced by The Local in partnership with Connect Sweden.