Copenhagen CEO on the two biggest jobs ahead for travel destinations

Mikkel Aarø-Hansen
Jamie Sterling

7 May 2024

“We didn’t see ourselves only as a tourism sector company. We were trying to say that we are actually here for the greater good.” – Mikkel Aarø-Hansen

Ever wondered why Copenhagen is so well known as one of the world’s most environmentally progressive cities? You might be surprised to learn that it’s partly due to travel and the influence of the city’s destination management organization (DMO), Wonderful Copenhagen. 

In episode one, we learned about Copenhagen’s reputation from its former mayor, Jens Kramer Mikkelsen. Now, we sit down with Mikkel Aarø-Hansen, CEO of Wonderful Copenhagen, whose experience working on sustainability and climate change issues with the municipality of Copenhagen saw him lead the Environment Department and act as a climate negotiator representing Denmark at many UN-sponsored Conference of the Parties (COP) events. 

Bringing this public service background and his skill in navigating complex issues to his tourism work, Mikkel connects the industry with other sectors on broader issues. He played a key role in shaping The End of Tourism As We Know It strategy and influenced the cruise industry to reduce its pollution. He stresses the role of DMOs as drivers of positive change, explains how “small units of inspiration” act as catalysts, and believes they have a responsibility to shift from being part of the problem to being part of the solution. 

“The future of travel is very complex. I think the biggest issue is how can we combine travelling globally with combating climate change.” –  Mikkel Aarø-Hansen

He sees two major jobs ahead for travel destinations:

Job 1: Help the local travel industry become more sustainable. DMOs need to understand the environmental impacts of travellers in the destination and find ways to reduce their carbon footprint.

Job 2: Influence the way visitors travel to the destination. Since transportation is the biggest source of emissions in travel, DMOs can both support initiatives and inspire people in ways that influence visitor behaviour. 

Learn more from Mikkel, including why your destination will benefit from a little healthy competition in sustainability, by tuning in to the podcast.


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Show notes

COP – The Conference of the Parties is the annual international meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

EU Green Capital AwardsAn annual award given by the European Commission to recognize and reward local action towards a transition to a greener, more sustainable future.

The End of Tourism As We Know It – Wonderful Copenhagen’s destination strategy to co-create sustainable and long-term value in collaboration with partners, residents, and visitors. 

Wonderful Copenhagen – The official tourism organization of the Capital Region of Denmark. 

Episode transcript

David Archer: Hello and welcome to Travel Beyond. I’m David Archer, Editorial Manager at Destination Think, and I’m recording from the village of Daajing Giids, British Columbia in Haida Gwaii, the territory of the Haida Nation.

Sara Raymond de Booy: And I’m Sara Raymond de Booy, Associate Creative Director at Destination Think. I’m recording from Seattle, Washington on Coast Salish land, specifically that of the Duwamish, Suquamish, Stiligwamish, and Muckleshoot people.

David Archer: On this show we partner with leading destinations to bring you inspiring solutions to the greatest challenges that face communities and the planet. We talk to the change makers who are addressing regenerative travel through action, and often from the bottom up. 

Sara Raymond de Booy: We’re actively looking for the best examples of efforts to regenerate economies, communities, and ecosystems. So be sure to reach out if you have a story to share with us. Today, we’re bringing back Mikkel Aarø-Hansen, CEO at Wonderful Copenhagen, the organization responsible for leading tourism promotion and development in the city.

Mikkel was also part of our Europe’s Travel Leaders series. So go back to December 2023 episodes to hear that one. 

And in lighter news, Mikkel also jumped into the harbour to prove how clean it was to the team when they visited a few months back.

David Archer: That sounds like a lot of fun.

Sara Raymond de Booy: It does, I’m kind of jealous. Copenhagen has built a reputation as one of the most environmentally forward-thinking cities anywhere. And we explored how that reputation came to be last episode, where we spoke with Jens Kramer Mikkelsen, Copenhagen’s longest serving mayor. And today we’re going to explore how travel can play a role in continuing to build that reputation by spreading it across the globe. 

One example of that is from about eight years ago with The End of Tourism As We Know It strategy, which Destination Think was involved in. It was about putting residents first and thinking about how tourism adds value to a place. Localhood was a concept that stuck out from that strategy. And that was all about embedding visitors into the community. And there are lots of thoughts as well about providing a positive visitor experience and how that was going to support investment.

But like anywhere, Copenhagen still has its challenges, which is something Mikkel doesn’t shy away from. David, do you have any background on Mikkel you wanted to share? What sticks out to you about his opinions?

David Archer: Well, Mikkel is an interesting guy. He’s been the CEO at Wonderful Copenhagen for eight years, so he’s an experienced DMO leader. But one thing that stands out to me, and I think is relatively rare, at least among DMOs, is that Mikkel comes from the world of sustainability. 

And as we’ll hear him explain, he has spent a lot of his career in the public sector. Working on environmental issues and climate issues within the Copenhagen municipality. He’s been the director of the city’s environmental department. And that includes serving as a climate change negotiator, even, at several UN COP events, going back to at least 2009, when Copenhagen hosted that global event.

And I think it says a lot about Wonderful Copenhagen that someone with his sustainability credentials holds the top role. And Mikkel is also a good example of a leader who is working to break the travel industry out of its silo and sort of connect it with other sectors and broader issues like climate and sustainability.

I feel like so much of what we’ve been talking about on this podcast has been about better integrating travel with society’s bigger goals or using it as a means to an end rather than an end in and of itself. And that’s going to mean making new connections and bringing in different kinds of expertise. And here’s someone who’s been doing that for a long time already.

Sara Raymond de Booy: Yeah, it seems like his experience in public service lets him see the potential influence travel destinations can have in kind of a unique way. Do you think that’s right?

David Archer: Yeah, I think so. And in this conversation, he talks about the idea of soft power, which is an interesting concept. What is soft power and why do DMOs have it and what can they do with it? And it’s his way of thinking about wielding influence through consensus and collaboration, which is already something that DMOs are strong at.

And for a minor spoiler, he’s got a really good example of how local organizations banded together to have the cruise industry reduce pollution in Copenhagen. So you’ll hear about that.

Sara Raymond de Booy: And for Mikkel, soft power also includes competition between destinations. So he also talks about how destinations can collectively raise the bar for sustainability by competing to outgreen one another, in a way. It’s a little bit of extra motivation or ambition that certainly doesn’t hurt. 

David Archer: Yeah, yeah, that’s right. We’ve all seen the various indexes of cities and liveability and sustainability indexes. I’m sure that a bit of competition is part of the rationale behind those, and things like the EU’s Green Capital Awards is another one. And that’s where Valencia is about to take the crown for 2024. Congratulations, Valencia. Uh, but those cities can inspire one another this way. 

And without giving away too much more, Mikkel also talks about the great good that can come from travel. He goes over what he calls the small units of inspiration that he continually receives from visitation in Copenhagen, or when he witnesses visitors and residents interacting. 

And later he also outlines what, for him, are the two biggest jobs ahead for DMOs and for today’s travel destination leaders.

There’s a lot packed into this conversation coming up. So let’s cut over to Copenhagen, where Rodney sat down with Mikkel to discuss all of the above and a little more, and that’s before they jumped into the harbour, of course. Let’s go. 

Rodney Payne: Could you start – just tell me your name and what it is that you do here. 

Mikkel Aarø-Hansen: Mikkel Aarø-Hansen. I’m the CEO of Wonderful Copenhagen. 

Rodney Payne: Copenhagen, I think, has fostered a reputation as one of the most environmentally progressive places on Earth, at least as far as urban centers go. And we’ve been exploring the future of tourism as the world changes. And I think we had to include Copenhagen on that exploration.

If I think back eight years ago, we had the chance to work with your team on The End of Tourism strategy that definitely was noticed around the world. I think at that time, it was quite controversial to be saying something along those lines and exploring that out loud.

That strategy was all about putting residents first, right? And really thinking about how does tourism add value to a place. You’re in planning for your next sort of strategic phase. So it’s a terrific time to sit down and talk and see what’s going on in Copenhagen. 

Could you tell me a little bit about your background and how you got to where you are?

Mikkel Aarø-Hansen: I started as CEO eight years ago now for Wonderful Copenhagen.

Before that, I’d been mainly in the public sector working with environmental issues, sustainability issues, climate change on a local level in Copenhagen, for the municipality in Copenhagen for five years, responsible for the environment department. And before that, as a climate change negotiator doing many COPs and representing Denmark and our ministry, also the minister, if not present, as a Global Director of of the Environment in the Ministry of Environment.

I came from the environment side, the, um, sustainability side. And the complexity from being on the, on the green team and trying to regulate from that side. 

But tourism is is very uh, there’s so many different partners, so you have the public sphere, you have local level, you have the national level, the regional level. And you have the private sector, which is not just one sector, it’s the whole value chain of international partners, national partners, local partners, small, big, and so on. 

You have the whole thing about bringing partners together and trying to find compromises, and, and solutions that are long lasting, basically. And that was a bit the same before I, before I started here. 

Rodney Payne: Yeah. It’s actually a lot of parallels now that you mention it. 

Mikkel Aarø-Hansen: Yeah, it’s not so, um, different. 

Rodney Payne: It’s a fascinating combination of experiences in your career. I don’t know. I can’t think off the top of my head of anyone else who has those two very diverse experiences. But that’s part of what makes it so exciting to talk to you. Before we get into all the hard things, what do you do for fun?

Mikkel Aarø-Hansen: For fun? I enjoy the city very much, basically. Like that. I have two kids, nine, twelve, two boys. That’s a big part of my fun. And we live very close to where I work. So I I enjoy having as much time with them as possible. So that’s what I’m doing for fun.

Rodney Payne: How do you get to work?

Mikkel Aarø-Hansen: By bike. Always by bike, yeah. Yeah. It’s the fastest, easiest, and yeah, best way to get on. Also in the winter. 

Rodney Payne: Let’s talk about Copenhagen as a place, can you describe it?

Mikkel Aarø-Hansen: Copenhagen is a is a livable city in many ways. It’s it’s not very big. It’s not very high. It’s built on a human scale.

We tend to call it a metropolis for humans in the sense that it’s built for the humans, and, and it’s very strong in, in, in many ways in doing that. It’s green, it’s blue at the same time. It’s a harbour city, it’s an old harbour city, and very proud of being an old harbour city. And it has become an international city as well. Many people from all around the world lives here today. 20 years ago, it was not so. A lot of students, much more international students than before. People from all over the world are getting jobs here. You’ll meet different voices in all kinds of shops. And it’s nice to live in a local place where you actually, we have the world next to you in a sense. And it seems that the world likes Copenhagen, and that’s good.

Rodney Payne: Yeah, there’s a lot to like. As a resident, what do you love about this place?

Mikkel Aarø-Hansen: I love Copenhagen for many reasons, but one thing is that it’s it’s a wealthy city and it’s a healthy city. People are doing a lot of sport exercise, jogging, swimming, biking. So it keeps you up also. And it’s it’s busy but it’s not too busy. You can easily find places where you can rest or you just go a bit beyond the city then it’s nature and it’s completely different. 

And it’s easy to get around.

We have big, very good infrastructure. Metro system and the underground. By bike you can take the bike with you and the trains. You can commute in many ways. So it’s accessible for you as a citizen, a local. But also for visitors.

Rodney Payne: What do you hope that tourists feel when they’re here?

Mikkel Aarø-Hansen: I hope they will feel at home and inspired. Possibly also a bit in love with the people, the place. And I also hope that they will take some ideas and some inspiration with them back home. Maybe think about that it’s possible to build a, or live in a city where you have economic growth. It’s a prosperous city in many ways. It’s a livable city in terms of health and so on. And it’s also an environmental city, so it’s you know, these things are not in contradiction, but you can actually have all of them in one place, in one city. 

And If you do it in the right way, you can basically combine prosperity with, with environmental policies, ambitious environmental policies and climate change policies as well. It is possible to combine these things. It’s not easy. It takes time, but it’s possible and you can feel it. So I hope, people will see a bit, be inspired about, about that.

Rodney Payne: One of the things that we were talking about. this morning actually, was whether it’s possible without seeing them as interconnected.

There’s such a low poverty rate in Denmark. I think less than 4 percent of people live below the poverty line here, which is phenomenal. 

And I wonder if the types of ambitious policy and change we’re talking about would be possible if we weren’t taking everyone with us. 

Mikkel Aarø-Hansen: The Danish welfare system is something that is among political parties in the parliament and also in the, in local city level. There is a complete agreement that to, to have a welfare system, we get everybody on board. It’s good for everybody. It’s not, if some parties want to reduce tax, it’s a, I think in American terms or Canadian terms, it would be a completely different discussion. I mean, we have a high tax rate in Denmark. And that allows us to have a strong focus on community and getting everybody on board. And that is a very integral part of who we are and the way we think, among political parties.

Nuances are there, of course, But in general, I would say that equality and and to get everybody on board. Also, when you talk about environmental policies, it’s very important. It’s not a thing that splits people.We all would like that. We’re working on that from our place. Yeah.

Rodney Payne: Is the citizenry in Copenhagen well engaged? When the city asks what do you need, what is working for you, do they get engagement? Do they get –

Mikkel Aarø-Hansen: Yeah, I think so. Yeah. Yeah. The city, the municipality of Copenhagen, the city of Copenhagen is continuously working on engaging the citizens in many different ways.

In general, I would say that that the locals are very, really would like to be engaged and are proud to, to be engaged and also very good at coming up with ideas. Some are good, some are not implementable and so on, but it’s a, it’s an engaged city and, and that’s good.

Rodney Payne: Is it easy to articulate the values of the people of Copenhagen? There may be Danish values, but is it easy to say these are the things we care about? 

Mikkel Aarø-Hansen: No, it’s never easy to articulate the values of many different people. It’s not. So I’m not a judge of the values of Copenhagen, but people of Copenhagen – I think you should ask them.

Rodney Payne: So your last sort of vision as an organization was The End of Tourism. And you may not know this, but it reverberated around the world. When you put that out, destinations all over the world took notice. And I think it, it caused them to pause and reflect on their own strategy and their own thinking. What success have you seen and what did you learn from putting out a bold vision here locally?

Mikkel Aarø-Hansen:  I think we learned a lot from The End of Tourism As You Know It. It’s a strategy that we call localhood, basically, because that was the the vision. Localhood for everyone was basically the vision of of that strategy.

And, and to us it meant that the locals should still continue to feel local and to be proud of being local. But the visitors should also be part of that. And so that’s why we called it Localhood for Everyone.

I think the main thing about that strategy for us when told about it, us as a destination, a company visibly, the, the partners and all the different agents that we cooperate with, was that we didn’t see ourselves only as a tourism sector company. We were trying to say that we’re actually here for the greater good.

We’re here to create a a destination that is good for the locals on the long term, so not only on the short term, but focusing on that we are, there are so many different partners to us that, that are, have a strong focus on the short term. We as a destination company should have a long-term perspective. And that basically made us to have different, a different kind of conversation about the value of tourism. What is it? Why do we have tourism? What do we want to get out of the tourists and the tourism sector, as such? How can the tourism sector and the, the value that it creates be to a greater benefit of the destination, of the city?

How can we incorporate some of the perspectives from the locals in in our work? And how can we bridge our partners, our networks with all the different other agents in the city and so on. So it, it basically made us as a destination company to rethink why we’re here.

The strategy as such was the vehicle to start up a new conversation. And that conversation has inspired us to do much more than the strategy in text did at that time, because it opened up a lot of new dialogues and a lot of new feedback from our partners and and new partners.

So the intention was not to make a, a big splash globally. I’m happy that it did because I think we need a global, a new global conversation about the value of tourism and, and the negative and the positive side of it, both. But the intention was to say, okay, we are, we’re working for a greater good. We are not a tourism sector company which is only working to promote our commercial partners.

Rodney Payne: When you have one eye on the future, what are some of the main positives and negatives and challenges and opportunities that you have in mind as you plot the next decade?

Mikkel Aarø-Hansen: I think the future of travel is very complex. I think the biggest issue is how can we combine traveling globally with combating climate change. It’s a huge challenge, and it’s, for us in Copenhagen, it is probably the, the most difficult challenge that we have ever seen. 

Basically, traveling is a polluting exercise, and I think everything starts with acknowledging that, the fact that when you travel, you consume. And you can do many things that are not good to, to the climate, and to the environment. So that’s, I think it’s number one.

If we can, as a travel industry, and not if we can, we must help fighting climate change. I think that’s the main challenge. Many other challenges I think. 

The future of travel is a complex thing. We are talking about a middle class that is growing. I can sit here in Copenhagen or in the western part of the world saying we should travel less, and we should do so and so, but we’re talking about an Asian middle class that is just expanding. Africa will come. People will travel more and more, not less. 

Acknowledging that people will travel more and it is a polluting exercise. It is not helping climate change. We are part of the problem and not the solution, so far. And just to start on that common ground I think is very important.

Because if we start by saying that if the cruise ships in Copenhagen were not there tomorrow then we’d fix the problem. It’s not. It’s much more complex. It’s a globalization-ish thing. It’s, in many ways, because people will travel more, but also because the big, the big agents here are global agents.

It’s the OTAs, it’s, there are forces here that are way bigger than what I can deal with as a destination company. The technological development is not in my hands. It’s a difficult issue and it’s also a global thing. The regulation of the travel industry should be global. It’s not, and that’s why it’s difficult.

Because it’s a negotiation thing between countries and so on. So it’s a, it’s not easy to regulate the travel industry on a global level, but it’s needed in the long run. So there are many issues that, that are beyond my control, my influence sphere. But, but I think as as destinations, we have to ask ourselves all the time, what can we do?

Because it’s not to me. It shouldn’t be of any, anybody in my chair a choice to say that environmental sustainability, climate change is not my issue. It’s my issue. And it should be my issue. I don’t have a choice saying that it’s somebody else. It’s the environment department.

It’s the global folks, it’s the EU, it’s somebody else. It’s me. I’m part of the problem, so I have to deal with it. And I have to find out how can I, from within, working with this fantastic sector, how can I use that, all these different capacities that we have in this sector, to, to find solutions on the issues, knowing that I don’t control the global movement of travelers and regulate it.

Mikkel Aarø-Hansen: I only have soft power, to a large extent, but I have to use that soft power and I have to use that in new ways, if we are to succeed in the long run.

Rodney Payne: I think what you just said in the last couple of minutes is some of the most therapeutic things I’ve heard in a long time. For me personally, cause I also work in travel and have done for most of my career and really believe in the power of travel. But just acknowledging out loud that the future is very complex, and also that travel is a fundamentally polluting activity, it’s like going to an alcoholics anonymous meeting where we just say, hi, my name is Rodney and I’m a, I’m an alcoholic. And now we can name that and start figuring out how do we use the massive power within our industry and all of our soft power, and relationships, and the power to connect with people, and the communication skills and resources we have to deflect the blow in a really positive way. It’s like when there’s a huge punch coming your way, you’re not going to get out of the way. The best hope you’ve got is to deflect it and maybe throw your opponent off balance. And that’s maybe a really good visual to think about for the next part of our conversation. 

So how do you see your sphere of influence and your soft power? How do you think about that?

Mikkel Aarø-Hansen: You can look at the power of destinations on different levels. You can look at the, the international level. What can we as destinations do to, um, basically increase the competition among sustainable destinations. Let’s call it that. I think that’s one of the the powers that we have and that we should use. 

So from Copenhagen, we have a clear goal of being the most sustainable destination in the world. And it’s not because the world would then be more sustainable if we succeeded in being the most sustainable destination in the world. So our aim is basically to add to the competition among destinations to be number one. If we had 100 destinations that aim to be number one in the world, that would be perfect. 200 would be better. 

I think that’s one level of soft power. Let’s try to inspire each other, but also to compete among each other, of creating more sustainable destinations. And then we can learn from each other. I can basically say, who is number one today, who is number two, we are number three today, and that we are proud of. We want to be number one. But we haven’t succeeded being number one, if we succeeded in being number one, because we need basically to increase that competition. So that’s, you can say the one level of, of soft power. 

Another example where you can say among your partners, among your networks local networks, how can we collectively lift the, uh, sustainability of this destination? That could be in how many hotels are certified, environmentally certified. How can we inspire the different hotels to, to compete in a positive way, to compete to go that, that direction, and to work with continuously improvement when you talk about environmental sustainability.

You can also inspire some of the um, the partners to, to go beyond that. And, and maybe be number one or two, three in the world among their peers and so on.

So you have a possibility of actually working with your network, working with your partners, and, and perhaps yesterday it was a possibility. Today it’s a responsibility. So you have to put yourself into that equation and say, how can we lift each other up? Instead of instead of saying that it’s somebody else. It’s not somebody else, it’s you.

Rodney Payne: So if you think about tourism here or elsewhere in the future, what does that look like in your vision? 

Mikkel Aarø-Hansen: That’s a good question. I think climate change will make a big difference to how we travel, where we travel to, where we travel from. I think If it continues with the the development of the changing climate that we’ve seen over the past just a few years, then I think just in Europe, you’ll see a completely different change, uh, change in movement. Southern Europe will probably have their vacations in Northern Europe. I don’t know where Northern Europe should go to have their vacation. But, this is serious business.  

Copenhagen, for instance, we have a lot of tourists in July, August. That’s our main season. Like in many other cities in Europe. But we are basically asking ourselves a question. Should we promote anything that has to do with summer in Copenhagen in the near future? Or should we just stop that? Should we promote anything that has to do with the inner city? Or should we just stop that? 

So again, working with sustainability, in broader terms, is not an option. It’s a responsibility.

And it’s not a thing about only marketing, only communication. What you have to do is basically to integrate sustainability into everything you’re doing. So you don’t have a department of sustainability. You don’t have a person that working with sustainability. You basically have to integrate horizontally, sustainability into everything you do.

That’s it. Talk about cruise industry, convention work, leisure work, events, your connections with airlines, transportation carriers, and so on. In everything you do, you have to integrate that, this perspective, and to motivate your partners, but also your international partners, local partners and international partners.

Yeah. Use all the soft power you basically have to become more sustainable. But it’s not, again, it’s not a Monday morning thing. It’s not a special person thing. It’s the organization as such. And it’s a horizontal responsibility of everything you do.

Rodney Payne: And it happens in leaps and bounds, and stops and starts, and in different pockets too. Like, if I look around Copenhagen, there’s some really inspiring things, but then there’s also inertia in the system as well.

Mikkel Aarø-Hansen: Yeah.

Rodney Payne: How do you, where do you look within Copenhagen that, that makes you really positive and excited about how tourism fits into a sustainable journey and decarbonization? What are the things that make you excited?

Mikkel Aarø-Hansen: Well, I’m excited when locals are proud of their city and they want to tell and inspire the, the visitors on our daily life, our daily routines, and they want to, to teach, you can say, small things about the daily uh, sustainable lifestyle. Then that makes me happy, because in the end, traveling and destination work is about a prosperous meeting between locals and visitors. And we still consider visitors as temporary locals. And if that meeting is a good meeting, you don’t have us and them. You have small units of inspiration, basically. And I think that can change a lot.

I think there’s a lot of force in that meeting between locals on one hand and visitors on the other hand. So when that meeting is prosperous, not in economic terms, but in, in, in human terms, then it makes me happy. And you see that, if you create the right frames for that, that could be a food market where locals meet the foreigners, long tables whatever. If the, the right setting and the frames and the and the inspiration, the, yeah, the frame for the inspiration is there. I think it will happen automatically, more or less. But that, that makes me happy.

It makes me unhappy, just to say that, when, when I see graffiti signs as, tourists go home, and it’s, you are not us. And I think if we end up having an us-and-them situation, then we have not succeeded at all. And I think everything we’re trying to do as a destination company now is to avoid that situation. Because it’s not only making us smaller than we should be, as humans, but it’s also making, adding complex to a world that desperately needs everything else than the complex. 

Rodney Payne: I think I align to your hypothesis that the future of tourism is very complex, that there’s massive forces at play, and even understanding those is very complex. And at the same time, I think we’re very aligned on the power of travel to change people’s hearts and minds. And I’ve thought about that a lot since I first met you.

Where, if people are still going to travel, how do we use that travel experience as a way to accelerate the growth of culture and the growth of values. And how can we export that? 

I think that the travel experience is one of the few things that can show people a better way of living, that they can touch and feel and realize it’s not scary. What do you think of that?

Mikkel Aarø-Hansen: I think basically, yeah, we have to ask ourselves, as destination companies, we have to ask ourselves the question, why are people traveling?

Why do we travel? In my view, you travel because you want to, you live and you want to learn. You are open for new inspiration. You are, you’re there because you can’t get whatever is there at home. You want to pluck yourself out of the daily routines. You want to learn and be inspired from somebody else or something else. 

And if that is the right theory, I think we have a tremendous possibility to use that power of openness as destinations to, and to take that seriously and say, okay we have an opportunity and responsibility to give something to the guests, to the visitors that are coming here, that is not only what are the usual things to see and to experience, but, what are the values in our society?

Why are they like they are? Why are people biking? Not the fact that they are biking, but why are they biking? Why is the harbour in Copenhagen clean? It is clean, but why, what did it take? When I plug my iPhone into the, the wall in the hotel room, you have green electricity. I don’t see that. Why is it green? What about the windmill? The wind turbine story of Denmark and so on. 

There is a responsibility of destinations to try to translate the layers below, and to inspire people to, to understand that and take something with them back home. And if we can do that and use the, the power of traveling, I think we have a great opportunity to actually make a difference and to use the force, transformative power you have in, in travel for something good. And we don’t, we don’t measure that today. And that’s probably the main problem of our sector globally.

Rodney Payne: How do you think we, I’m not saying that Wonderful Copenhagen doesn’t do this, or that it doesn’t happen organically, but thinking globally, how do you think our sector translates the hidden things where the electricity comes from when you charge your iPhone, and the values behind the actions that are happening to deliver the experience and connect people to residents?

How do you think we shift from the tactics that we’ve historically done to get more people? To really put those values and those incredible stories at the forefront of our brands, our communication, and the experience we deliver. How do you, how do we take that leap?

Mikkel Aarø-Hansen: We start. We start to take that leap. We are a communication sector. We are a storytelling sector. If we cannot do it, nobody can do it. The meeting between the restaurants and the customer, the museum and the visitor, the locals and the visitor, we just start communicating. We start telling. As a destination company, I have loads of partners that are basically earning money from telling stories. So the question is, do we dig a bit deeper? And do we start telling what is, what we know as locals or local partners? Or don’t we? And I think we have a tremendous opportunity to, to dig deeper and to tell more, which is in our own interest in many ways. So it’s not that complex.

But if we want to give a good value for the guests, the whole experience, that’s the value. So what do you put into that experience? Content, meaning, history, storytelling. Let’s try to put in some of the values and some of the thinking that is needed in, in, in this world we’re living in now. And that is that we need to combat climate change and create a sustainable way of living. I think we as Copenhagen have an opportunity and a responsibility to tell that stories, and more of them, in a smarter way. And I think many other destinations around the world could do the same.

Rodney Payne: I think. coming here is such an inspiring example of possibility. The restoration of the canals has taken decades.

Mikkel Aarø-Hansen: Yeah.

Rodney Payne: We’re gonna have to restore all kinds of different ecosystems and, important keystone environmental things around the world. And coming here and seeing that is a story I didn’t know until I saw it firsthand, right? And it’s inspiring. I’m sure other places are coming to learn from that.

Your national energy company becoming a world leader in wind is inspiring. There are examples of inspiration here that make it possible to change. And my favorite one is the reduction in carbon footprint per person who lives in Copenhagen is very tangible, and it’s factual. It’s undisputable. So many people are still making pledges to change in the future. And I think to see and hear from you that people have gotten happier, wealthier, and we’ve reduced our carbon footprint. That’s something the world needs to learn. And if you have to come here to see it and believe it, let’s get everyone here really quickly.

Mikkel Aarø-Hansen: Not at the same time, please. 

Rodney Payne: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Not in summer.

Mikkel Aarø-Hansen: Not in summer.

Rodney Payne: And not in the same year. But I think that’s, I think that’s really, it’s really tangible. And I’m really glad that I got to see it firsthand. 

Mikkel Aarø-Hansen: But you need to understand it, and I think we have a responsibility as destinations and cities at large to, to translate and to tell, to tell much more about how do we develop this.

I think people come here, when they come here, they can see that, okay, you have bike lanes all over the city. It probably didn’t come in the last, during the last four or five years.

So what did it take? What are the the locals’ view upon that? And how does it create a positive daily lifestyle for the citizens? And so on. 

So we have to dig deeper and we have to tell more. Traveling is about meaning. It’s about life. And if you add your destination values to that, I think you have a possibility of using the force of the powers of tourism in a much more positive way. And I’m very happy that travelers in Copenhagen, they swim in the harbor. But I guess 90 percent of them, they don’t know why it’s clean. Imagine if it’s, it was only 10%. That understood that and what it took. A bit about the history, a bit about what kind of change can I do, perhaps even who do I vote for the next meeting and the next election in my own home town, and so on. It’s just saying that I think we should dare a bit more as destinations to to tell stories and, and dig deeper and give it more meaning.

You can ask yourself the question, do I have a responsibility as a destination to teach the visitors that are here or not? I think we have a responsibility to give something. I’m not standing on the corner and telling and teaching people like in a classroom, but, but if, if we as destinations say, we don’t care what you take home, as long as you’re happy here, I don’t think it’s enough. It’s not enough in the world we’re living in. You have to lean a bit forward and say that we dare to say that this is what we would like you to take home. This is the inspiration that we stand for and the values that we stand for. 

Rodney Payne: What we’ve been talking about makes me think about the rich opportunity to communicate the story of the place while people are here. It’s really hard to get people’s attention through digital or traditional communication these days.

But I’m looking at the PowerPoint over here, and I’m thinking about the story behind that PowerPoint, literally behind it. 20 or 30 years ago, Ørsted was a fossil fuel behemoth. And now they’re the global leader in wind. 9 out of 10 windmills around the world are made by them. There’s a story behind that power outlet.

When I walk along the canal, I jump in the canal. There’s a story behind that canal. That exposes the values of the people here and the leadership here in the city that we’re not telling. And that’s a really important moment to connect. It’s interesting.

Mikkel Aarø-Hansen: Yeah. One of the things you have to do as a destination is to include the visitors in the daily life. You can expect from visitors that they behave responsibly, environmentally, in a good way, and you should do that more, I think. But you also have to look at yourself and say, how do we include visitors in our daily life?

That could be in the harbour. That could be on the bike lanes. One of the issues that we have in Copenhagen is that Copenhageners really want to have, to have the visitors to, to become temporary locals, to be part of the daily life in many ways. And one of the big things that we’re doing in Copenhagen is to bike.

When we, but we commute, we go like this. And the visitors when they, they bike, they’re on sightseeing. So they go like this. And for that reason we have some friction on the, on the bike lanes among visitors and locals. And we have to ask ourselves a question. Okay, we want them to bike, fine.

Now they start biking, which is excellent. So let’s learn them to bike. And let’s also behave in the other way and say, we respect that. Actually, we’re very happy that you do that. And if you go home and you continue to bike, even better. So that’s also about the mentality and, and creating the good meaning between the visitor and local is, is very important.

Rodney Payne: How do you see your role or Wonderful Copenhagen’s role in helping our industry to be thinking about the things we’re talking about? Because we’ve been through a difficult time with the pandemic affecting restaurants and the tourism sector more than any other sector. Many people are still grappling with recovery. And at the same time, there’s big forces in the environment that are impacting places like Hawaii and some of Canada.

What’s the responsibility of destinations, or how do you see your role in helping to take people on a journey and realise that change is inevitable? And how the tourism sector can both decarbonize and be prosperous, and also be part of a really positive future? 

Mikkel Aarø-Hansen: Well, I think there is a long list of responsibilities that we have as destination companies. One, one thing is to talk about it. Basically, it’s just to acknowledge that we have a problem. And we are today not a part of the solution, but a part of the problem, and we have to change. That conversation you have to have with your partners. And that’s a place to start. 

Secondly, all destinations are working with networks, groups of partners, and so on. And what we, we’re very good at actually, as destinations, is to bring people together, and to learn from each other, inspire each other, compete among each other. If we plug sustainability, the combating of climate change into that equation, we have an opportunity to say, this is the future.

You have to compete and you have to do well. If not, you will run out of business, basically. And that is, that is just something that, that conversation you have to create. But also very practical. You have to showcase good examples, best practices. Somebody who has done a very good job in minimizing their food waste, actually positively benefiting the economy. How can others learn from that? And so on. There are so many good things. And as a destination company, you have the overview, and you can take the good examples, and make others be inspired by that. It’s completely soft power, it’s completely basic, but you have to do it. And it’s, it works.

Destinations are very different, and the partnerships they have are very different. Let’s take one example. We have a cruise industry in Copenhagen. We’re an old harbour city. Cruise lines are coming here from all over the world. They’re not only coming to Copenhagen. They’re continuing in the Baltic Sea region. We are working with our partners in the Baltic Sea region.

One of the main issues is that, while they’re here, they’re polluting. It’s very visible. You can see the smoke coming up. I guess worldwide these ships are loved and hated. And by locals here, they are not so much loved. Let’s put it that way. So what can we do? We don’t have the regulation. We don’t own the harbour. We can only, we can use the soft power that we have, but we are working very closely with the cruise lines.

So what we’ve done is to get 19 of the biggest cruise lines together, signing a memorandum of understanding, saying that if we in the whole Baltic region, supply onshore power, they will use it by the 1st of January, 2024. They all signed it and it’s a complete soft power thing to do. But while doing it, we are at the same time promoting the companies.

We’re saying to them, if you do this we will tell it out into the world and we’ll also tell it locally that you’ve done it, which we’ve done, of course. And we’re also telling all the harbors and the Baltic Sea region now. Now the cruise lines have signed this. Let’s make as much as possible on shore power available in our region. So sometimes you have to invent platforms to be able to use the soft power. But there is a incentive from many sides, it’s a competition also. Who’s greenest, who’s most sustainable? And if you can add to that competition, then you’ve done a good job, I believe.

Rodney Payne: That’s a really terrific example.

The city itself has really ambitious goals. How do you see the tourism sector’s emissions, I’m thinking about scope three, getting here on planes and cars and cruise ships, how does that play into the city’s ambitions or your thinking about how to steward the sector and develop your strategy for the future and the risk that entails if we don’t get ahead of it, the risk we’re carrying? How do you think about that?

Mikkel Aarø-Hansen: Yeah, I think as destination companies, we basically have, when we talk about environmental sustainability, we have two big tasks. One is whatever consumption there is on your destination, how can we make that greener, basically? How can we make it yeah, more sustainable?

Which is one big task, actually, because it’s not as easy as it might seem like, because you don’t control, again, you have no hands on, okay what kind of consumption the tourists are having on the destination. But let’s just start saying that we don’t know how green it is today. We don’t know the CO2 footprint of the consumption by the tourists in Copenhagen today. Maybe we should start measuring that. Okay, let’s start doing that. And then let’s start again to work and be leaning a bit forward and promote some of the sustainable consumption. That we can start already today, and we should, and we are doing that.

But it’s also about measurement. You should actually have a system in place where you know what are the negative effects and negative footprints of the consumption made by the tourists. So that’s one big task. 

The other big task is, of course, to, and that’s even further away from what you control: How do they get here? What kind of means of transportation are they choosing? And so on. 

The big thing is, is the pollution made by planes. That’s the big thing. And let’s be honest, and let’s talk about that. We don’t control the development of biofuels, powertracks how do we scale that up as destination companies.

But we can talk about it. And we can inspire people and support the initiatives that are taken. I’d say if we create and we basically have a voice saying, we would like all the airplanes in the world to to be sustainable. And if we’re working with them. We can ask and demand, what kind of plans do you have? Are you a member of the Global Alliance for Sustainable Aviation and so on? If you are, we’ll give you more support or even more credit and so on. Again, you have to ask yourself the question, in all the relationships you have, how can we integrate this?

What difference can we make? As I said, we don’t control the uh, scaling up of biofuels in the world, and powertracks, and hydrogen production, and so on. We have no power on that. But that’s not the same as saying that we cannot make any difference at all. 

The markets that you’re promoting your destinations on, the target groups that you’re trying to get to your destination, the transport companies you’re working with, all that is within your control sphere.

So there are many things you can do, but you cannot make people stop flying. It would be insane saying, we don’t want Americans to come to Copenhagen because they’re flying. It’s not, it doesn’t make sense. We’ll come anyway.

So what we can do is to try and inspire the Americans that are coming here. To really want to learn and to live the life of everyday life. We can work with the big air companies and saying to them, we would like you to also take responsibility of this particular route to be as sustainable as possible. If we promote Copenhagen in the Boston area, wherever, we would like you to, to step up also when it comes to environmental issues and so on. So use the power you have and don’t put it aside and saying, okay, when we talk about traveling in this area, sustainability is not included. Integrate it in everything you do.

Rodney Payne: You think a lot about longer, slower trips, as well, as part of our future? 

Mikkel Aarø-Hansen: Yeah, I think so. I think the way we travel would be very different from today. To put it short, I think when you travel in the future, you’re more aware of the costs, costs to you as a person, but also to nature, environment, climate. I think that that understanding will go up. 

And at the same time, the, the hunger for meaning, in broader terms, will go up as well. You don’t travel just to relax, because you can basically do that very close to you. You travel to uh, to get something, to take something back home and and to become a better you. Yeah.

Rodney Payne: What do you think, in 10 years, Copenhagen might have been able to teach world?

Mikkel Aarø-Hansen: Oh, that’s a difficult one. I think, I hope that Copenhagen, among many other destinations, can showcase that economic growth and prosperity is not a, in contradiction to fighting climate change and being sustainable in a broad sense. Showcasing on an overall level, but also showcasing on a practical level and a daily life, basically. 

I also think and I hope that, seen from a citizen’s or individual perspective, that all these different things, you know, it’s a, it’s a better city um, when you are healthy because you’re biking, you’re swimming, you’re moving by yourself. It’s a nicer way to experience the city when the architectural design and everything is, is thought of. Somebody has thought that the way we design the city has to be in a human scale. It has to be good for the humans, kids, families, and so on.

Then I hope also that our food scene , it’s been fantastic development during the last couple of decades, also to becoming one of the uh, gastronomic capitals of the world. And that can continue to develop. And also one of the things that, that I think is very special about this food scene is that, the fact that we’re trying to work with local produce and sustainable production in the whole value chain of of the restaurant or the food scene. 

Basically I think, uh, I hope Copenhagen can add to the competition of becoming more sustainable among destinations. And if we can inspire others to do better, because the thing that Copenhagen will become number one, and then they’re becoming number two, then I think it’s good. It’s good for the world to have sustainable competition.

Sara Raymond de Booy: This has been Travel Beyond presented by Destination Think. And you just heard from Mikkel Aarø-Hansen, CEO at Wonderful Copenhagen.

We’ll include links to more resources on the blog for this episode at I’m Sara Raymond de Booy. This episode has been produced and has the music composed by David Archer. Lindsay Payne and Annika Rautiola provided production support. 

We’d like to thank Wonderful Copenhagen for their support in creating this podcast season with us, and for their willingness to be bold.

You can help more people find the show by subscribing and by leaving a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Spotify. 

Next time, we’ll head over to speak with Anders Lendager, architect, CEO, and Founder at the Lendager Group. See you then.


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