Tone Rønning Vike and her husband, Bjørn Vike, share the same sentiment in regard to running a restorative travel company. “The whole experience and operation need to be on board, not just one element of it,” Tone says.

Situated in the heart of a UNESCO World Heritage site, near Aurlandsfjord in Norway’s Aurland Valley, the Vikes’ ten-room operation is a 15-minute drive from the village of Flåm, which sits at the very tip of the Aurlandsfjord. While it’s only 12 miles away, it seems like a different world. Flåm is on a lot of bucket lists, and a convenient stop for cruise ships showcasing the beautiful Norwegian fjords. That means a village of 300 people is transformed overnight into a town of 5,000 whenever a cruise ship docks in the harbour. And the huge vessels dominate the view: guests staying in fjord-facing hotel rooms wake up to a surprise: a massive ship, blowing its whistle and blocking the majestic views of the fjord.

“No kind of tourism pollutes more per passenger than cruise [ship] tourism,” Tone says. “Imagine a floating city – the amount of waste, and how little they contribute to the local economy, is jaw dropping.”

Research is beginning to back up these claims. According to the Norwegian Center for Transport Research, the number of cruise visitors went from 200,000 to 700,000 between 2000 and 2015. In the villages of Geiranger and Flåm, where most tourists go to see the fjords, nitrogen oxides in the air have reached levels considered toxic to health. The Aftenposten, Norway’s largest newspaper, asked the Norwegian Institute of Aeronautics to examine the air quality at Geiranger. The results were surprising. On days when several cruise ships docked at the small town, air pollution, particularly nitrogen dioxide, reached levels comparable to that in London, Barcelona, Glasgow, or Munich – surpassing 180 micrograms a day.

Since many of the cruise ships were built before the year 2000, they are not operating with the latest systems. Plus, they navigate through waters surrounded by steep mountains where there is little wind, so the polluted air just sits in the narrow fjord, hanging over Geiranger. The government is looking at various ways to curb the pollution and minimise the impact on towns such as Flåm and Geiranger. Tone argues that it’s not happening fast enough.

In 2018, the Vikes’ hotel hosted a walking festival where they invited guests and visitors to walk through the Aurland valleys and waterfalls. “We want to give slow adventures, organic, local produce, and show that this can be the walking heart of the world,” she says, preparing a pot of tea in the hotel’s kitchen, from which guests can see waterfalls in the distance.

Tone and her husband are oddballs in the tourism industry. They’re from Bergen, where Tone worked as a journalist and even made a documentary about pollution in Norway’s fjords. But middle-class life in Bergen was beginning to bore her. “I felt all the conversations revolved around ‘proper clothing for the kids,’ and ‘how to redo your kitchen (for the third time),’” she jokes. “Having worked as a journalist for most of my adult life, it felt like it was about time to do something. I wanted to do, do with a capital D.”

The opportunity presented itself in the form of a farm that Tone’s husband had acquired from his family. He had stayed at the farm as a child and his mother had grown up there. His aunt and uncle worked in the fields, growing hay and carrots. Since Bjørn’s aunt and uncle didn’t have kids of their own, in 1996 they passed the property on to him. In 2014 the couple decided to turn it into a boutique hotel.

In neighboring Flåm, there are three or four hotels with en suite accommodations. None of them are terribly cheap – starting at $250 a night. After all, this is Norway, one of the most expensive countries in the world. The Vikes offer ten rooms for similar prices. The difference in the experience, though, is unmistakable. The Flåm hotels are situated right on the fjord, which means they have views, but they also have thousands of cruise visitors ruining the views, to the extent that the experience can often be overpowered by the ships that moor right in front of the hotel balconies.

The Vikes instead have created a slower, gentler approach to visiting the fjords. At their hotel, named Aurland – the address of the property – a variety of small structures house the ten rooms. They’re configured as singles, doubles, and suites to accommodate guests traveling in various-sized groups. What’s most notable about the space, though, is its heritage. The rooms encapsulate the history of Bjørn’s family and the various visitors they’ve had over the years.

The fisherman’s cabin, where they hosted their first guests in 2014, is one of the oldest structures in Aurland itself, dating back to the early 18th century. Fishing is a common theme throughout the property. Framed images of the fly fishermen adorn the walls, including an image of Bjørn’s grandfather, who preferred to fly-fish wearing a suit, not his farm clothes.

The rivers and waterfalls that run through this corner of the world are important to the Vikes. Because she had investigated environmental issues affecting the region in her journalism days, Tone is well versed and outspoken on what’s happening around her. “We look at the waterfalls as the veins of the country. As 99 percent of the electricity used in Norway comes from hydropower, we have seen too many rivers dammed – among them, our Aurland River. It severely influences the ecosystems of the river and the fjords, and that, combined with the many salmon farms in the Norwegian fjords, have caused a severe decrease of the wild fish population,” she says.

While Tone is taking guests on hikes to see the waterfalls close up, Bjørn is also active in preserving as much open space and dam-free rivers as possible. He is the leader of the local river owners’ association. Every year he brings together fly fishers and researchers to a gathering in the Aurland Valley. Needless to say, he’s also happy to teach guests fly fishing. There are rules though: only one fish is allowed to be kept per day, and salmon fishing is catch-and-release only. And each year, at the beginning of the fishing season, the duo donates a one-week stay at their hotel to the annual auction, held by the North Atlantic Salmon Fund to support its environmental program.

Typically, cruise-ship visitors just make a quick stop in Flåm, go on a tour, and then move on to the next fjord with their ship. The Vikes, instead, invite their visitors to stay a few nights and enjoy the area at their leisure – and largely on foot. Fishing, hiking, visiting waterfalls, and rowing boats on the fjords slows the pace. For guests who would like a little cultural immersion, they organise a picnic with a local writer or artist.

“It’s about the simple things we take for granted,” she says. “In Norwegian, there is a word, friluftsliv, which refers to an outdoors attitude. We feel a bit unfulfilled if we have spent a weekend without hiking or skiing.”

For her, the average day includes driving her children to school, overseeing operations at the hotel, taking guests on a hike up to a waterfall, and then picking up the kids and doing chores around the home as well as ensuring that guests have what they need. She admits that it’s a lot of work, yet she’s happier than she was in Bergen. “Many kids nowadays grow up without ever having seen the Milky Way due to the light pollution. We are very blessed to have this natural treasure chest around us.”

By working with travel operators who celebrate a similar slow-travel mindset, the Vikes are able to keep their hotel occupied. In fact, it’s sold out from May to September. Guests come to Aurland for a pristine environment of natural beauty, not a hurried tour of the fjords. “I’ve had guests from Hong Kong and Singapore who wondered if they were really allowed to pick the wildflowers,” she says. “They’ve grown up in cities where everything is manufactured.”

To celebrate the handmade elements of their community, the Vikes have brought together local artisans and business owners to create an organization called Sakte – “slow” in Norwegian. They try to support one another by using each other’s businesses wherever feasible. For instance, Aurland sources all its organic bread from Krutt & Kanel Bakery in Aurland. They take guests on guided tours of Aurlandskoen, a handmade-shoe factory, and offer guests a visit to Rein Glass, a glassblowing workshop. The Vikes also employ students from the local organic agricultural school as gardeners to look after the hotel’s vegetable patch.

“Norway sells nature,” Tone says. “Not lineups [of cruise ships].”

Excerpted with permission from Working to Restore: Why We Do Business in The Regenerative Era, Esha Chhabra, Penguin India.