Sweden’s summer island of Gotland waits anxiously for domestic travel decision

Sweden's summer island of Gotland waits anxiously for domestic travel decision
Streets and terraces like these in Visby would usually be packed with visitors on a sunny summer day. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg / TT
The Swedish island of Gotland is almost entirely dependent on summer tourism for its economy, so business-owners here are waiting even more eagerly than most for a delayed decision on domestic travel over summer.

Earlier in the outbreak, there was especially strict advice to avoid non-essential travel to lesser populated areas like Gotland, due to fears that the healthcare system would not have capacity to handle any sharp rise in illness.

In one Facebook video from Gotland shared widely ahead of Easter, healthcare workers stood outside a field hospital with signs reading: “We go to work for you. Please stay at home for us. Even if home is on the mainland”. The video asked people not to travel there, saying that the region's healthcare was designed to take care of numbers based on permanent residents.

But as the outbreak drags on, struggling businesses are calling for a compromise that allows some travel and assistance to the affected companies. If tourists are not allowed to travel from mainland Sweden to the eastern island, it's likely that bankruptcies and growing unemployment will follow.

“Up until now, turnover has fallen by 98 percent,” said Björn Wallenström, CEO of bike rental service Gotlands Cykeluthyrning.

The company usually has a turnover of around seven million kronor per year, but most of this takes place over a few weeks during the summer. 

“So far we have lost all the conferences, cruises, school trips, and Almedalen,” he said, referring to the now cancelled week-long political festival that usually attracts more than 40,000 visitors from outside Gotland.


Björn Wallenström is one of many business-owners suffering as a result of the crisis. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg / TT

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Wallenström is one of many business-owners waiting to see what the Public Health Agency's guidelines for domestic travel during summer will mean for his business.

“We want a decision on what kind of summer it will be on Gotland. This wait is very tough, especially for our seasonal workers who don't know if they will be able to work or not,” he said.

In the meantime, he has had to come up with other solutions, selling 150 of his 900 bikes to maintain liquidity, and travelling around the island to carry out bike maintenance. 

“We are trying to be creative and find new income sources. It's not comparable with the income we would have had, but anything above zero is good,” he said, adding that he was hoping “that the situation is stable enough for tourists to come here so we can come out of 2020 in a decent way. There's a difference between losing 30 percent of turnover and losing 90 percent.”

The island's economy is largely built on tourism, according to Frida Ganshed from Gotlands förenade besöksnäring, an organisation representing the island's hospitality and tourism industry. She said the impact of a lost tourist season would be felt even beyond the typical tourism businesses such as hotels, attractions, and food and drink.

“Catering, laundry, building, technology, cleaning; everything is maximised during the summer months,” she said. “We are left in the dark. It's tough that no one knows how it will be. The government has the fate of businesses in its hands now.”


Frida Ganshed says that most of the island's economy is linked to tourism in some way. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg / TT

The decision on domestic travel was first expected last Friday, but was postponed until this week, without the Public Health Agency naming a date.

“I know business-owners who were unable to sleep on Thursday night because the decision was so important. Then it didn't come. That's irresponsible,” said Ganshed.

Cafes and restaurants in the capital of Visby are open, but without the crowds of tourists that usually accompany the early summer. 

Even if the restrictions are eased, no one is expecting an ordinary summer. Tourists may not be allowed to travel in as large numbers as usual, may choose not to make such a long journey, or travel may be limited to those who have proven links to the island such as family or property.

Current restrictions are to avoid all travel of more than one to two hours in a car, which in practice rules out any journeys between the island and the mainland. If these guidelines stayed in place, many businesses would struggle to survive.

“A lot of companies would go under and many families would lose their livelihoods. That means increased mental health problems and unemployment. We're talking about a whole generation of young people who won't get summer jobs, who maybe didn't get to celebrate graduation, and who won't be able to do what they planned in autumn,” said Ganshed.

“I hope that the restrictions will be eased so we can travel with Sweden. We can calculate a number based on how many people are here, and they could strengthen the healthcare system based on that or find solutions based on collaboration with nearby regions.”

 


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