A visit to Ameland – The most innovative coastal destination in Northern europe?

Picture 34In the spring of 2013 I went to the Dutch Wadden sea island of Ameland to do some research for my study on Innovation in Northern european coastal tourism. I first heard about it in march where the mayor of the island visited Denmark, to tell about the ways, in which they are using events to promote the place and to provide tourists with memorable experiences. For instance, they are hosting the biggest Beach Rugby tournament in the world as well as having a Mountainbike race with more than 6000 participants, just to mention a few. When comparing that to the location and the size of the island + the fact that it is located within a world heritage site, I thought.. “that’s crazy”. I definitely had to go see that for myself.

ameland1Having nearly missed the last ferry departure after a rather long train ride via Bremen and Groningen, I suddenly had the first ‘bite’ of the Ameland experience. A road train – a sort of car with wagons – was parked on the harbour, where tourists could just throw their bags and other heavy belongings before boarding the ferry. “That’s service!”, I thought to myself. Although having been on ferry rides at least 100 times (roughly estimated) different places in Denmark, I have always had to climb the stairs with my heavy bags, since the elevator is always occupied. Having a road train doing the job, like in an airport, may seem like a simple thing but is very refreshing indeed. It was a somewhat good start and it made me think “this is going to a great trip”. The 45 minutes long ferry-ride is a quite unique experience as well. When you look out the window it seems as if you are sailing on sand, since sandbanks and very shallow water is pretty much all you see. I was thinking “I might as well have walked the way”. And indeed that is possible – the walk through the Wadden Sea takes approximately 3 hours and guided tours are offered from both sides. Definitely something that is on my list. How cool wouldn’t it be to tell people that you walked across the sea? :-) A narrow canal of relatively deep water is the only sailable option for the ferry. Along the way, you witness the rich wildlife that is situated in this area. Big flocks of birds along with more rare species and although I didn’t witness it myself, I was told that the ferry is a very good place for seal watching. And it’s easy to imagine how they would lay on the sandbanks along the shipping lane.

Upon my arrival to the port town Nes it was getting darker. But a special green looking light was shining from the harbor. It is a light that attracts migratory birds from the surrounding Wadden Sea. This way, a quite unique experience is accessible from the waterfront. Another thing I noticed in Nes was the thousands and thousands of bikes that seemed to be stacked up for the tourists to use. Operating green policies on the island, they encourage tourists to use bikes instead of bringing their cars. And indeed it seems like they have bikes in just about every size and shape. Everything from small kids bikes to big storage bikes and tandems. And there’s always a bus going around the island, which I was told, should be free in the near future. However, when they cannot rule out cars entirely, it is because they are dependent on a large group of campers who bring their caravans every year to one of the 7 camp sites on the island. But according to Sjon de Haan, director of tourism policy on Ameland, campers are now getting fewer and fewer and are to a greater extend renting the stationary mobile homes and holiday homes, which is good for the island Haan states.

beachOn my second day I visited different key-stakeholders on the island. Among others Sjon de Haan, Cinto Prosperi (CEO at the tourist office) and Casper van de Kamp (head of Sportpromotie Ameland). Although dealing with different things and representing different tourist organizations, they all agreed that there’s been an increased growth in tourism on Ameland in recent years. One of the major reasons why this is the case, is the fact that events are being held on the island almost year-round, thereby extending the season and altering the image of what is normally thought possible on an island like this. As a result, the only quiet months on Ameland are January and February. Sport events have been used to draw attention to the island as an active place. In recent years they have managed to get some big and prestigious events to the island. For instance Ameland Beach Rugby, which is the worlds biggest beach rugby tournament. But also art and culture occasions have been emphasized as part of the island’s identity. For that reason it is possible to witness the island functioning as an art gallery the whole month of November. Picture 35An event that is drawing lots of culture enthusiasts from The Netherlands and Germany but also from Scandinavia and other parts of Europe. When asked why Ameland have been so successful in operating this form of event tourism, Haan says, “We were not afraid of utilizing the natural areas and world heritage areas that surround the island”. In continuation he states, “a lot of destinations see the world heritage brand as a huge asset but they are afraid of using it, and then nothing happens”. What Haan implies is that due to the regulations and policies associated with managing world heritage areas, they are often left to themselves – not being facilitated. As a result, only birdwatchers and other trained visitors get to experience the full potential while the general tourist does not. We need to take the tourists by the hand and facilitate the experiences so they as well get to experience the full potential. Also, as Haan say’s, with the intervention, the experiences become more fun and memorable.

The extent, to which the environment is affected, is something I have yet to explore. Nonetheless, Ameland seems to be a good example of how to successfully utilize events to promote year-round tourism.