World’s most sustainable city? Copenhagen and its impact on travellers

Katie Shriner

5 December 2023

There is an advantage of being the first, but it’s also a responsibility sometimes to be the first, or to be the one of the first, and to put up ambitions higher than everybody else.” – Mikkel Aarø-Hansen



Copenhagen is often considered the most sustainable city in the world. But they didn’t earn that title by accident. Denmark’s capital and its leaders have been working for decades to lead a transformation through shifts in government policy and culture. 

The End of Tourism as We Know It was a groundbreaking strategy by Wonderful Copenhagen that called for visitors to become temporary locals, and the lessons these temporary locals take home with them is crucial to spreading change. In this episode of Travel Beyond, Wonderful Copenhagen CEO Mikkel Aarø-Hansen shares why it’s important that travel and tourism connects people to ideas that can inspire us all to tackle the sustainability challenges we’re currently facing. 

In this episode, you’ll also learn:

  • What exactly it means to be a “temporary local.”
  • Why Copenhagen believes it has a responsibility to educate visitors before they return home.
  • Advancements in sustainability that are changing the way the city operates. 



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Show notes

The End of Tourism as We Know It: Wonderful Copenhagen responded to rapid changes in the tourism industry by creating a 4-year strategy called The End of Tourism as We Know It

Wonderful Copenhagen: The official tourism organization representing the Capital Region of Denmark with a mandate to lead tourism development in a sustainable direction.


Episode transcript

Mikkel Aaro Hansen: There is an advantage of being the first, but it’s also a responsibility sometimes to be the first, or to be one of the first, and to put up the ambitions higher than everybody else. 

Sara Raymond de Booy: Hello and welcome to Travel Beyond, where we partner with leading destinations to explore the greatest challenges facing communities and the planet, surfacing their most inspiring solutions. 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, Stillaguamish, and Muckleshoot people.

On this podcast, we look at the role of travel and choose to highlight destinations that are global leaders. We talk to the changemakers who are addressing regenerative travel through their action and in their communities, often from the bottom up. 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.

This time we’ll hear from Mikkel Aarø Hansen from Wonderful Copenhagen. It’s home to a power plant that you can ski down, the harbour is clean enough to swim in, and there’s even a program where anyone can borrow a free kayak to clean up rubbish from the waterways.

“The End of Tourism as We Know It” was a groundbreaking strategy that called for visitors to become temporary locals. And Wonderful Copenhagen also believes they have a few lessons those temporary locals can take home with them to make the world a better place. CEO Mikkel sat down with Rodney to discuss the importance of travel and tourism leaders connecting people to ideas that can inspire us all to tackle the challenges we’re currently facing.

Rodney Payne: Could you tell me your name, what you do, and where you live? 

Mikkel Aaro Hansen: My name is Mikkel Aarø Hansen. I’m CEO of Wonderful Copenhagen, and I live in Copenhagen.

Rodney Payne: And you joined in 2015?

Mikkel Aaro Hansen: 2015 I joined, yeah. 

Rodney Payne: It was right around the time that we were working with your team on a project, The End of Tourism. 

Mikkel Aaro Hansen: The End of Tourism as We Know It, yeah. 

Rodney Payne: How do you think about tourism, and how has that visionary piece informed your thinking and your executive team and your team’s thinking? 

Mikkel Aaro Hansen: So that piece, that was our strategy, basically. Not to end tourism, but to work differently with tourism. And the vision was localhood for everyone, both travellers and locals. And basically we’re talking about the same city, the same destination, it’s for everyone, and, and we want to develop a destination where it’s not us and them, but it’s us together. 

And that is a difficult challenge, and we haven’t succeeded with that yet. And I don’t think anybody has. So in that sense, that vision is still the same. Our mission at that time was to enable our destination to be shared more.

Both meaning digital, to be shared, pictures and so on. It was our capacity to absorb guests, and the way we can share things, share our way of living, sharing our beliefs and our values and so on.

So underneath that mission was a belief that we have a responsibility to give you something as a tourist or a visitor. Something that you will learn from us. We can learn from you, but we can also share something with you that you’ll take home. And maybe you will even be able as a destination to change your way of living when you come home.

And that, of course, we have not succeeded with yet completely. But the way of thinking is the same. And we still believe that there’s a lot of transformative power in tourism, and that we as destinations have responsibility to give you as a tourist visitor something with you in your luggage on your way back that will inspire you for the rest of the life.

And Copenhagen has a lot to offer in terms of sustainability, livability and so on. But we still in many ways calculate the value of tourism and bed nights and how much money you leave at the destination, because it’s very difficult for us as destinations to know what are you actually taking home?

And who are you? How can we ask you many years from now if you actually learned something? So that’s a difficult part of this, but the transformative power of tourism is still there and we still believe in that.

Rodney Payne: What you’re describing is the reason I left a perfectly good career in law and investment banking, because I really fundamentally believe in the power of tourism to open people’s minds and share ideas.

What do you think Copenhagen can teach the world? 

Mikkel Aaro Hansen: Well, I think, Copenhagen is a small, big city. And it’s easy to dive into, basically. Our localhood strategy was to consider guests as the temporary locals. And that demands something from us. That we welcome you and we take you in, but also that we create space within the city that is for everyone. 

But I think Copenhagen can learn that the daily life in a city can be sustainable in many ways. It can be easy to follow. You can take a bike, you can feel among locals in Copenhagen.

Everybody speaks English and in different ways, of course. And I think everybody would like the conversation about what is a good daily life. And so if we can connect locals with visitors, that is a value in itself, because that is in that conversation that you learn something.

It’s not because we or museums or hotels are telling people stories. It’s in the conversation between the locals and the visitors that we create something special, I think. And Copenhagen is not too big to offer that.

Rodney Payne: We’ve just lived through a massive monumental event, right? A global pandemic is something that probably nobody expected to live through. And in a lot of places it gave people Pause. Have you seen values change as a result of the pandemic as your residents got to experience their home again, just by themselves? 

Mikkel Aaro Hansen: Copenhagen tourism was hit very hard by the pandemic. 75 percent of the loss, money wise, in Denmark was actually in Copenhagen. So the tourism industry suffered a lot, just to mention that as well. 

But basically, I think everybody, everybody have learned something from that pandemic, in terms of what is a good daily life and Copenhageners love to be able to just walk around, and it was peaceful, quiet, but also that something was missing.

The international voices, conversations were different. So something was good, but something was also missing. But I think everybody, including the, the visitors have also learned something about when we visit, we take more care of the local community, and that is a good outcome.

Rodney Payne: Yeah the whole idea of respect is something that I think people are thinking about more in our industry. 

And when I talk to people, I can feel a very deep and real concern for climate change and a lot of people grappling with the dichotomy of being in our industry and being aware of the impact our industry has. And it’s not easy to reconcile. How’s the thinking within Wonderful Copenhagen, within Denmark, in relation to tourism and our footprint? 

Mikkel Aaro Hansen: Well, climate change is the greatest crisis we have witnessed, I think, as human beings and, and that goes for all sectors and all kinds of industries.

So we all have piece of the puzzle in terms of solving that crisis. So Denmark is a frontrunner in terms of when it comes to combating climate change. We have a national target of 70 percent reduction in 2030, and that will not affect the global crisis, solving the global problem, if we succeed in that, because Denmark is a very, very small country.

So the mentality in Denmark and Copenhagen is that we have to invent solutions and tell the world. Because nothing will happen if we don’t succeed, or if we don’t tell the world.

When we talk about climate change, it’s a global problem. We have to put the ambitions high and we have to tell the world about our ambitions.

And it’s possible to do that transformation and invent products, sell products, talk about solutions to the world. Otherwise, we have no place to be in this world when we talk about climate change. So that’s the mentality.

It also goes for tourism. It also goes for many other things. We have to be the front runners in things and tell the world. That is how we can make a difference.

 We have now integrated sustainability and climate change and everything we’re doing in Wonderful Copenhagen, because that’s our responsibility. And we’re trying to influence as much as we can together with all our partners and the different partners we are working with.

But we have to tell the world. And one way of telling the world is actually to invite the world to come and to see and experience and to learn something. That is one way. 

Rodney Payne: Yeah, I think about it as the opportunity to be Disneyland for the transformation that needs to happen. And I’m glad you said about showing the world because I think the type of leadership represented by going fast, 70 percent as a country, is, is massive, by 2030. And we need those examples.

People need to see possibility, and they need to see that it is actually achievable. And if places don’t go first, especially privileged places where you live, where I live, then it’s easy to say it’s too hard, we can’t do it. And I think there’s also a huge first mover advantage too, right? From a reputation perspective, Denmark will always be known for that. 

Mikkel Aaro Hansen: That’s right. That’s right. There is an advantage of being the first, but it’s also a responsibility sometimes to be the first, or to be one of the first, and to put up the ambitions higher than everybody else. Basically as a leader, you have the choice of saying, okay, we have to share our solutions, our ambitions, and that is enough.

Or you can say that we have to compete and we have to be the best, because there is a dialogue whether you should compete or just share. I think we should do both.

I think we should compete very hard. Because if we compete among destinations, for instance, it’s a good example. We rate ourselves as destinations right now on the sustainability index. Is that positive? Well, the world doesn’t change if I’m number one. Or some other destination is number one.

Somebody will always be number one. But the fact that everybody’s competing about being some of the best when we talk about sustainability or combating climate change is a positive driver for change. When I am here in, in Sofia, I find out that there’s somebody else doing a good job. That’s cool.

That’s fine. That gives me motivation to go back and even do better. And I think some of the others are also thinking that way. So competition is good when we talk about combating climate change and sustainability. But of course we need to share our solutions, and so on. That’s what we’re doing as well.

So we have to do both. 

Rodney Payne: Yeah, I totally agree. And I think our industry isn’t very competitive as far as industries go. We share very openly between different destinations. But there is something about competition that’s very exciting and motivating and can capture attention for your stakeholders.

Who do you see as your cooperators in decarbonisation? Who are the other destinations that you look at and aspire to be like or beat? 

Mikkel Aaro Hansen: Of course you can compare yourself to, for instance, Nordic capitals and other capitals that are doing a good job and are rated well in terms of climate change and destination management and so on.

So that, we’re doing, but it doesn’t mean that you cannot take one or two ideas or different ideas from some destination and completely different, queenstown, for instance, or American destinations. And so I think you need to look very broad when you learn something, or you want to learn something.

But what is interesting is that there’s not so many, when you talk about political, the political game and doing something for climate change or creating sustainability, destinations are not in that picture. We are not very visible in the political stage. 

I think we have a collective responsibility to bring destinations up. And to show that destinations can actually do something, and the travel industry as such can do something collectively when we talk about, combating climate change and creating sustainability.

Rodney Payne: Tell me about some of the things that you see happening in Copenhagen or Denmark that you are really excited about when it comes to the change that we’re going through? 

Mikkel Aaro Hansen: So a lot of things are happening, because if you want to reach 70 percent reduction you need to do a lot of things.

One of the things that are happening right now in Denmark is, is that we are expanding our wind industry that is offshore. The government just mentioned yesterday in the press that now we have a massive investment in offshore wind industry.

Rodney Payne: And basically that will mean that we can produce more wind than we can use in Denmark. And we will export wind for the next many generations. So things are happening in some of the industries that we are very proud of in Denmark. The wind example is a great one, because I think in our industry we don’t think about how much influence the sector can have, and we require energy, because it’s energy intensive. And wind is a fundamental supply for our industry. So I actually like that you started there. 

Mikkel Aaro Hansen: Wind will be very big in Denmark. Solar as well. Powertracks is coming up. We have a lot of ambition actually making hydrogen. Producing hydrogen in Denmark, for planes and heavy transportation and so on. So there’s a lot of production there.

And because of that, it’s also considered as an industrial opportunity to be the first mover in the different sectors. The airport is now also among the first movers when we talk about airports and the climate change plans they have there for actually being climate neutral.

So things are actually going hand in hand. If you start in one area, that would positively influence the other way and the other area. So I could talk a long time about what we’re doing and, and what, what we’re working with. So basically you can say that one of the Copenhagen as a destination management organization is the way of dealing with the climate change and sustainability, in my view, is to integrate it in everything you’re doing.

So that goes for cruise industry, conventions, destination management, development, and of course marketing. You have to integrate it in everything you’re doing, and not having it in one part or in one department of your organization. That we have done, and when you’re doing that, you also realize how complex it is.

And as a leader, you have the choice of actually saying that, okay, that then because of the complex, it’s easier to cut off something and then leave that out. There was mentioning in this room before that, of course, you can cut off the cruise industry. You could also cut out the Chinese tourist. You can also cut out the American tourist. You can cut out many things. I believe that if you, as a DMO, want to make a difference and influence sustainability, you should integrate in everything you’re doing and you should use that role in everything that you touch upon. 

So if I can influence American businesses, airlines , cruise lines. I think I have a bigger, impact in the end than cutting off myself in that dialogue, or in that game at all. But of course, if you don’t take upon yourself that role to influence that, then nothing will happen.

For me, it’s not about cutting off things.

It’s about using that dialogue or that opportunity to influence things. And so, for instance, when we talk about the cruise industry, we have now 19 cruise lines signing up a MOU, Memorandum of Understanding, that if we have in the cruise Baltic area on shore capacity to electrify your ship, they will use it from 1st of January, 2024.

So what we’ve done is to basically get everybody on board and say, you have to sign it because he signs it, then you also have to sign it. So that’s just one small example because I have the dialogue with the cruise industry and the cruise lines, then I can lead myself forward and say, okay, we have to be serious about this.

Another example. I promote Copenhagen together with airlines. So instead of making a direct flight from Delhi to Stockholm, I say to India, if you make it to Copenhagen instead, because you need a northern port, make it to Copenhagen, then I will promote Copenhagen in the catchment area of Delhi.

I could stop that and say, I don’t want to do that. Then the flight will come to Stockholm, and not to Copenhagen. But what I can also do is to take that data with India and saying, okay, I will support you, but I will influence your passengers. And I will give you a bonus if you put in the the right flight, the right airplane on that route.

And I will give you an extra bonus points if you are a member of a global alliance for investing in greener fuels, for instance. A third example is we have a Global Destination Sustainability Index. Copenhagen is number three. I could alone say, okay, we are aiming at being number one.

Or I could go together with all the local industry partners saying it’s your task to be number one. It’s not my task. And then I gather everybody and then say, okay, you have to sign up this manifest. We are aiming together being number one and you are rated on this and this and this and this.

So I think we cannot control the cruise industry. We cannot control the airlines, the air industry and so on. There’s so many things we cannot control. So what we need to say to ourselves is that if we don’t have the direct access to a lot of different partners, potential partners, industry partners, then we don’t have anything.

But we have to use that relation in order to create a difference. 

Rodney Payne: It’s super inspiring to hear you talk about those examples, because I think, I’ve heard a few people recently talk about our ability to lobby for policy or pressure suppliers and pressure partners in the way you’re describing. But I haven’t often heard good examples of how that’s transpired.

And the travel and hospitality sector is 10 percent of the global economy. It’s the biggest sector. We’re the gorilla in the room, right? We have a ton of influence. And if you buy the narrative that we’re the open minded and wealthy ones, right? Because only really wealthy, privileged people get to go on planes.

In theory, we should have learned from other cultures, and we should have a relatively good overview of the world. We can use that weight in the same way you’ve been doing it in Copenhagen. As an industry, we can throw our weight around a little bit and require things, and perhaps… force a transition to go quicker than it is moving at the moment.

Mikkel Aaro Hansen: Yeah. 

Rodney Payne: Do you see that happening elsewhere? Have you heard other people doing similar things?

Mikkel Aaro Hansen: I think this conference here in Sofia is a good example. I think more and more things are happening. And, as a DMO, you know you have a responsibility. The thing is, it’s difficult to take upon yourself that responsibility and turn it into action.

So we need to share these examples and how you can do it in practical terms. But I think a lot of things are happening, I got a lot of inspiration. So, my point was before that you have an opportunity because you have a relation.

Then you have an opportunity to make a difference and create a transformation. If you cut off that relation, you don’t have an opportunity to create a difference. So you have to stick to that, but you have to influence that relationship and that’s our power. That’s within that relationship with our partners.

Otherwise we don’t have any power.

Rodney Payne: Getting the tourism sector to 70 percent reduction in emissions by 2030 is ambitious. What does that mean for strategy for you, in terms of source markets, the volume of tourists, the length of stay, how are you influencing or shaping your strategy?

Mikkel Aaro Hansen: Right now we are actually in process of shaping a new strategy that would be more ambitious and so on. So I cannot tell you all the answers yet, but of course that’s the direction we’re going. Basically, what we would like to be is an inspiration to the world on many issues, including tourism.

So we’ll probably end up having to make some choices and that is also shareable with others. 

The easy way out is to say that then we don’t do marketing. Then we don’t do long haul at all. Then we don’t do uh, all kinds of stuff.

And you can cut off all things. And then you end up being a chicken without any uh, wings or whatever. It’s within that relationship, with global partners, local partners, and so on, national partners, that you create a difference as a DMO. And that I think is important.

If I could dream about something, then it would be that DMOs around the world are cooperating much more.

Basically, you can say that the value of tourism today is still globally measured in terms of bed nights and how much money you leave at the destination. Nobody knows what you take with you back home and how you use that transformational thing at a global level.

What do we have? 1.4 billion international arrivals, or something like that, and we’ll probably increase to 1.8 in 2030, something around that. It’s a lot. There’s a lot of transformative power in that. If everybody was learning something from each other, and bringing back ideas and so on. But that is not a, captured, that transformative power.

That would be good if we could do that. I think that then we can make a big difference. If I make a big difference in Copenhagen by cutting off Chinese tourists or cruise industry, Oh, they’ll still come, anyway. I won’t make a difference.

Rodney Payne: The power of influence.

Mikkel Aaro Hansen: Power of influence is in the relationship. And then you have to lean forward in that relationship, of course, and stick to your words. But it is in there. And if you cut off that relationship, then you don’t have much power. 

Rodney Payne: It’s the perfect note to end the conversation on. I love it. I really appreciate you taking a minute to sit down and talk. 

Mikkel Aaro Hansen: It’s an interesting discussion. 

Sara Raymond de Booy: This has been Travel Beyond presented by Destination Think. And you just heard from Mikkel Aarø Hansen, CEO from Wonderful Copenhagen. We’ll include links to more resources on the blog for this episode at 

This episode has been produced and has theme music composed by David Archer. Lindsay Payne and Annika Rautiola provided production support. We’d also like to thank CityDNA for making this interview possible at their conference in Bulgaria.

You can help more people find this show by subscribing to future episodes and by leaving a rating and review on Apple Podcasts. See you next time! 


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