Spaceport at the Top of the World
How an ore-mining town in Sweden sees a new identity over the horizon.
- By Andrew Curry
- Air & Space magazine, August 2011
Courtesy Swedish Space Corporation
(Page 2 of 4)
The town began investing in tourism, trying to attract visitors during Kiruna’s short summer. White-water rafting, fly-fishing, survival training, and canoeing were all popular. Some people came just to experience the 24 hours of sunlight at summer’s peak. But for more than half the year, the town’s hotels were empty.
In 1989, a Kiruna entrepreneur named Yngve Bergqvist changed that completely. Bergqvist organized an ice festival in Jukkasjärvi (seven miles from Kiruna), inviting artists from Japan to carve ice sculptures and construct an exhibition building made of ice and snow. The festival caught on, and a few years later, Bergqvist lodged a group of corporate clients in the empty ice house overnight.
They survived, and a business was born—the IceHotel, which has grown from its humble origins into a global brand. Each winter, a hotel with dozens of rooms is built out of a mixture of snow and ice (“snice,” IceHotel employees call it). Guests pay between $200 and $600 to spend a night bundled in thermal sleeping bags on reindeer skins in a 23-degree room.
The IceHotel’s fame transformed Kiruna into a winter tourist attraction. The town’s high season is now mid-December through the end of March. Underemployed truck drivers plow racetracks on frozen lakes for car companies and tourists who want to try ice driving; there are snowmobile and sled-dog tours for adventurers, and reindeer-spotting trips for nature lovers.
In many places, someone wanting to build a hotel out of ice—and charge people $600 a night to sleep in it—might have been laughed out of town. But here people seem to take the unusual in stride. Perhaps that’s one reason the town is so supportive of Virgin Galactic’s equally outrageous plans. “Bergqvist showed it was possible to make crazy success out of what’s just outside the house,” Törmä says. “Many people are very proud of these crazy ideas.”
Spaceflight could mean yet another tourist boom in Kiruna. Johanna Bergström-Roos, information manager at Esrange space center, says the minimum stay for space tourists would be three days—two for orientation and classes to make sure people know how to handle themselves in flight, and one for the flight itself.
And those rich enough to buy $200,000 trips to space are going to want to share their experience with spouses, kids, maybe parents and friends. “If a space tourist comes, they’ll bring five, 10, 15 people along,” Bergström-Roos says. All those people will need places to stay and things to do. Plans are already in the works: Bergström-Roos showed me sketches for Space City 2020, a development program that would capitalize on the spaceport’s success with space summer camps, centrifuges to simulate high G-forces, and video links to let people on the ground share the spaceflight experience in real time.
Dan Bjork, the IceHotel’s marketing director, says the hotel is working with Spaceport Sweden (a consortium made up of four corporations in Kiruna, including the Swedish Space Corporation, and the IceHotel) to come up with a plan to pamper Virgin’s customers, from accommodations and entertainment to working with Virgin’s medical staff to produce just the right pre-flight menu for their four-star restaurant.
Bergström-Roos estimates that the space industry in Kiruna employs 500 people right now. “If we can double that in 10 years, it will be a great success,” she says. “We know the mine will not be there forever.”