Travel: EU Smart Tourism Award


Catherine Feore visited this year’s winners of the prestigious EU Smart Tourism award.

Tourism plays a crucial role in generating growth and jobs. It is estimated to contribute to some 10% of the EU’s GDP and employs around 25 million people. The EU smart tourism initiative, supported by the European Commission, enables Europe’s cities to learn from one another; it promotes a more innovative, accessible and sustainable approach to tourism.

You may think ‘smart’ just means digital, but it is really just shorthand for intelligent solutions to a wide range of challenges and includes the evolution of digital products and services – access for all visitors, sustainable development and support to creative industries and heritage. We visited the first winners of this award, the cities of Lyon and Helsinki, to see some of these innovative approaches.

Helsinki: Not only geographically far apart, the cities of Helsinki and Lyon are different in almost every sense; language and climate most obviously, but also in history, culture and way of life. A statement of the obvious, but a reminder of Europe’s wonderful diversity and what makes the continent so great.

In Helsinki, we stayed in the recently renovated landmark Marski hotel. The hotel’s cocktail bar is described as ‘legendary’ and the ‘elite of cocktail bars’. It is also nice that they use Finnish award-winning gins.

However, the city is replete with more sustainable lifestyle choices. If you aren’t sure where to start, go to the MyHelsinki website. You can find a full itinerary of sustainable attractions, sustainable eateries, bars and even clubs, there’s also a list of sustainable shops, where you can purchase long-lasting design, vintage or recycled items.

If you enjoy modern architecture that puts sustainability front and centre, Helsinki holds many gems. The sauna is a national obsession – according to legend, there are some Finns who don’t like the sauna, but they have never been spotted and most are thought to be extinct. They even have a Ferris wheel with a sauna. One of particular architectural merit is the Löyly public sauna looking out on to the sea.

It may sound odd to say visit the public library, but Helsinki Central Library Oodi is well worth a guided tour. It is stunning in its design and cost a meagre €98 million. When I asked if there was public rioting at the cost, I was told with a shrug of the shoulders that it was around the same cost as 10km of road. Seen through this optic, how could you disagree? But this library is not just a triumph of design, it is also a triumph of function. It has books, but there are also music studios – with instruments and top-end recording facilities, gaming rooms, all sort of tool rooms with everything from sewing machines to 3D printers. If you are seeking inspiration and best practice, Oodi is a must.

For relaxation, visit the Suomenlinna Sea Fortress UNESCO World Heritage Site, a short ferry trip from the city and a great way to stretch the legs. It is also close to the little island of Lonna, which has a wonderful sauna, and afterwards you can swim in the Gulf of Finland with the swans – they look scary but they are OK if you stay at a respectful distance. After your dip you can enjoy the restaurant, which has delicious Finnish dishes using the freshest of local ingredients.

Finally, I would highly recommend Nolla. This is a high-end restaurant with an almost pathological obsession with making everything – and I mean literally everything – from the soap that is recycled from kitchen fat in the toilets to the in-house composting system for sustainable food. This obsession has had a ripple effect across Helsinki, with the owners asking or suggesting that their providers make more sustainable changes.

We know this from our conversation with one of the three owners, and that is one of the most refreshing things about Nolla. The food was great, the atmosphere was welcoming, but at no point were we lectured at or told about how environmentally sound we were being. It was a great restaurant that just happens to be a world leader in sustainability.