Europe

A place to chill

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Since the first ice hotel opened in 1992, Northern Europe’s frostier resorts have increased in popularity. Now, a part of the industry is targeting a ‘carbon-positive’ future.

In the 1980s, the remote Swedish village of Jukkasjärvi had a problem. White water rafting, fishing and canoeing would attract visitors in the summer but, despite pristine, snow-clad mountains, nobody came in the winter. One day the village’s tiny tourism group, led by Yngve Bergqvist, invited a couple of Japanese ice sculpturers on a seminar, which later culminated in the creation of a snow house. Three years later, when Berqvist struggled to house a visiting client company, he suggested they sleep in it. So they did, and Jukkasjärvi had its first winter attraction: the Icehotel.

Today there are at least seven snow resorts across Norway, Sweden and Finland. Many came around in the late 1990s after the success in Jukkasjärvi. The most popular welcome around 50,000 guests each year, of which up to half stay for the night. Visitors come from everywhere; Icehotel, the world’s biggest with 5,500 square metres and a planned 65 rooms, last year had guests from 84 countries. “Most of our visitors are not coming from a winter climate, so they appreciate it very much,” says Dan Björk, the hotel’s marketing manager. “You will see grown-up people turn into kids.”

The industry boomed in the mid-noughties due to increased media exposure. “That’s when it took off,” says Björk. “We had lots of journalist coming up to the Icehotel and we have also had television programs broadcast from the hotel.” The same is true of Norway’s prime snow lodge, the Igloo Hotel, located in Sorrisniva some 20 kilometres outside the northern town of Alta. “You may say that we have a 50 per cent higher visitor rate now than we did five years ago,” says sales manager Kaja Antonsen.

Alongside that, activities such as snowmobiling, skiing, dog sledding and moose expeditions have added to the experience of spending a night on ice blocks and reindeer skin in -5˚C. So too, of course, has the opportunity to see northern lights, which is excellent in the Lapland region where most hotels are based. People also come to observe the construction phases, which typically start in November and last until December, when most hotels open for overnight visitors. The buildings then melt away in April.

How are these giant snow structures built? Many follow the template of the Icehotel crew. Already in March, they harvest thousands of tonnes of ice blocks from the nearby Torne River. These are stored over the summer and wheeled out in November, when artists and designers carve them into walls, beds, chairs and sculptures – the hotel’s interior. Just before that, the hotel’s foundations are created by snow machines spraying snow on giant steel forms. ‘Snice’ is added to the mixture; a blend of snow and ice, but with a higher density than regular snow, which means it melts slower. After a few days the forms are removed, leaving freestanding walls and corridors.

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Most visitors stay only one night in the ice hotel, which costs £120 to £450 per night depending on site and season. The remaining time is spent in normal lodges that have showers, restaurants and luggage storage (they’ll freeze solid in the ice hotel). Inside the hotel, guests use -30˚C-resistant sleeping bags, which are placed on reindeer skin over the ‘bed’. Warm underwear, long-sleeved undershirts and even woollen hats are recommended. In fact, with the added comfort of a morning sauna, the cold isn’t actually a big issue. It’s something else.

“One of the problems is that it’s so quiet,” says Heini Korvenkangas of Snow Village, a 20,000-square-metre complex by Ylläs in north-western Finland. “There’s no air conditioning, no lifts, no traffic, nobody running in stairs, no TV and none of the background noises people are used to fall asleep to. It’s complete silence. They do of course fall asleep eventually, but to start with they’re surprised by how quiet it is.”

But there’s more to it than sleep. For a start, most sites have ice bars and churches. Icehotel, for instance, hosts around 140 weddings and 20 baptisms each year. The interior is also becoming more refined; artists are assembled from around the world – Norway, Italy, Argentina – to carve sculptures, art, curving stairs and lamps. “It is now moving into the direction of being an exhibition of art where you can also sleep,” says Björk. “And that’s very deliberate. More and more resources are put into the art and that is highly appreciated by visitors.”

His resort is also becoming more sustainable. It cooperates with a Swedish energy company to lower its consumption, which they estimate to have reduced by 30-40 per cent since 2008. Their next step is to generate more energy than it spends. It’s a long way to go, but, says Björk, “we’re on our way and I’m very optimistic. It would be a very nice thing to be able to say to clients that by visiting the Icehotel, you’re actually contributing to surplus energy production.”

Photos: Leif Milling, Jorn Losvar. Artists: Marinus Vroom & Marjolein Vonk.

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