What It's Like to Live in a Tourist Hot Spot Without the Tourists
"What happens when you remove all of the travelers, and are left with mostly locals? You have the unique opportunity to see a place as it really is — not as it’s often depicted."
When President Donald Trump announced the European borders would be closed to Americans for a month, my partner, Rasmus, and I looked at each other from across our dining room table and sighed. "Welp, I guess that’s that," he said.
At that point, we were two weeks away from a long-anticipated return trip to his hometown, Copenhagen. We had Easter celebrations planned with his family, a coveted reservation at the newly opened two-Michelin star restaurant, The Alchemist, and were both looking forward to a much-needed Scandinavian break. Even though we were disappointed, we reassured ourselves it wouldn’t last forever — and for now, the health of people around the world was more important than the symptoms of our travel bug.
A few months later, once most of Europe had the virus somewhat under control and began welcoming travelers again, we started discussing the possibility of making a grand escape to Denmark. Though the European Union ruled against American passport holders, it was a recommendation — not a mandate — allowing each country to decide its own regulations. As a nation that promotes family first in nearly every aspect of its culture, we weren’t surprised when Denmark chose to allow Danish citizens and their spouses, domestic partners, live-in girlfriends or boyfriends, or "sweethearts."
Since I work remotely as a freelancer and business owner, and Rasmus is also taking meetings from our kitchen, we thought: "Why don’t we temporarily move our work-from-home lifestyle across the pond?" After crunching the numbers, scoring a great rate on a friend’s apartment in the city, and booking a flight on points, we decided to go for it. We figured, since testing is available upon arrival in Copenhagen, with results in less than two days, we would quarantine until we were cleared. Then, we could reunite with friends and family.
Though it was stressful being in an airport and on an airplane for an extended period, since we touched down in Copenhagen, everything has felt calmer and more relaxed.
While I write this article, Denmark has a total of two people in the intensive care unit, and 20 in the hospital with COVID-like symptoms. Though, like most areas right now, their numbers are slightly rising, the Danish government recently announced they don’t anticipate another shutdown for a second wave. Rather, they may take the lead from other countries and enact a mask-wearing decree.
However, in the meantime, I find myself living and working in a tourism hot spot — without tourists. Is it strange? Definitely. And is it wonderfully different? Also, yes.
As a curious travel journalist, I’ve visited and reported on more than 40 countries in my career. I’ve navigated the busiest intersection in the world in Tokyo, grooved in jam-packed drum circles in Buenos Aires, danced my way through five-story clubs in Prague, and toured Copenhagen with Rasmus, shoulder to shoulder with adventurers from all over the world.
Part of the travel experience often includes dealing with the masses, and being part of a collective group of other tourists. Upon returning home, our stories sometimes begin with, "Even with a ticket, we had to wait an hour to enter the Colosseum in Rome" or "You wouldn’t believe how many people they pack into those long-tail boats in Krabi, Thailand."
So, what happens when you remove all of the travelers, and are left with mostly locals and a few fortuitous visitors who are allowed to enter the country? You have the unique opportunity to see a place as it really is — not as it’s often depicted.
Rasmus and I feel liberated by being in Denmark, where the virus has been tamed. So, we’re taking advantage of all of the Nordic energy, and spending lots of time biking and walking around. And every area that we explore, there’s never any congestion. On a recent Sunday afternoon, we strolled through popular Nyhavn, home to the iconic and colorful canalside buildings, and it was easy. There was no waiting for tourists to move or boats to sail in. We asked a passerby to take a photo of us, and it looks as if we have the whole street to ourselves.
Since we are staying in the Østerbro neighborhood, it's a quick 10-minute walk to the Copenhagen lakes. Usually, these would be jammed with visitors walking around and enjoying the view, but there are only a few runners now. While the iconic Noma is still booked solid for small parties, larger groups can snag a table. It’s easy to nab reservations at other fine-dining establishments, or honestly, any restaurant. And renting a boat to sail through the harbor or a kayak is super-fast, too. Museums, the zoo, and other landmarks are also open and crowd-free. One of Copenhagen's must-sees is The Little Mermaid statue, a nod to the Danish fairytale author, Hans Christian Andersen. When we randomly stumbled upon it, Rasmus suggested I take a photo, since there’s usually a super-long wait, and tourists line up for the shot.
Logically, I knew I would be one of the few Americans in town when we decided to live in Denmark for six weeks. But it wasn’t until I started going into coffee shops and responding in English, only to find a stunned barista looking back at me and quickly switching to my language, that it finally sank in. Living in an international city in the middle of a pandemic — even if it doesn’t feel like it here — takes away all of the hustle and bustle and replaces it with normalcy. We’re not touring here; we are coexisting with the locals, experiencing the winter shoulder season, but at the peak of August.
Though the hordes of tourists are a distant memory in nearly all travel destinations these days, residents are filling up the spaces. Here, Danes are rediscovering their backyards again. The beaches, food markets, and canals are packed with locals, all of whom have changed their summer trips from international to domestic. Many Danes are also using their vacation time to drive around their country and experience smaller towns. It’s near-impossible to find a sommerhaus for rent, since so many residents have left for the month to enjoy the seaside during their break. Like in the U.S., many eateries have expanded their outdoor dining options, and anytime the temperature teeters past 75 degrees, everyone swarms for a pint of Carlsberg under the sun.
Selfishly, it’s an enlightening experience and one that I’m grateful to have — not only because it offers a pause on the intense anxiety that comes from simply walking outside of our front door in Boston, but because it gives a glimpse into what relocating here would look like in a few years. (In truth, we would do it now if we could.)
That said, as a dedicated traveler and journalist, seeing empty streets makes me nervous (and sad) about the economic future of cities that rely on tourism. While Denmark has experienced a 42 percent increase in income from tourists since 2010, it isn’t as dependent as other European nations, like Greece, Croatia, Italy, and Portugal.
While it’s hard to imagine returning to the old traveling way of country-hopping, it’s equally challenging to think about not being able to travel freely for the foreseeable future. But when we do, I imagine the focus on local will continue. Rather than only visiting the hot spots, I predict travelers will seek ways to experience countries in a socially distant, safe way.
Renting a car and driving through the Danish countryside isn’t the same as clubbing until dawn in the heart of the capital city, but both stimulate the economy. And both introduce you to Denmark. It teaches us to be a little more forgiving of the world once we can tour through it again. Just like everything else that has changed during COVID-19’s rampage, so have the tourism destinations we dream of and love. And that’s okay. It’s an opportunity to approach traveling differently, giving us a new responsibility as visitors.
Like many unfathomable truths of 2020, the tourism industry has a long road to recovery. But we can all start by using this time to get to know our next destination better, so when we can finally take that trip, we’ll be a more conscious, considerate tourist. We will see the country beyond its most famous cities — and instead, witness it as a home.