Denmark’s Green Keys

Scandinavia’s Sustainable Tourist Mecca

While other cities struggle to become more bicycle-friendly, Copenhagen, Denmark has already arrived. Thirty-two percent of this eco-centric city’s commuters travel on two wheels, probably the highest percentage in any industrialized urban center. Only 30 percent drive, and the rest walk (five percent), take the train (13 percent) or the bus (20 percent).

Many of the sod-roofed tourist cottages in Denmark are Green Key-certified. The west coast of the country offers beaches and unparalleled birding.© Jim Motavalli

Street corners in Copenhagen are magnets for parked bicycles, and some of them are municipally owned under the innovative City Bike Scheme. There are some 2,500 bicycles stashed on 125 racks around the city, complete with built-in maps. Insert a 20-kroner ($3.40) coin and the bike is released. When you return the bike, you get the full deposit back.

Denmark is so eco-conscious that the arriving traveler doesn’t have to seek out green oases: examples of sustainable development are all around. Wind energy supplies 20 percent of the country’s energy needs now, and it could be 35 percent by 2015. Slowly turning wind turbines are everywhere you go in Denmark, including the capital city. A row of 20 turbines sits outside Copenhagen harbor.

Denmark has 5.3 million people living on a collection of 406 islands (only a fifth of which are inhabited), plus the peninsula of Jutland. Taken together, Denmark’s territory is only half the size of Maine, making it the most densely settled country in northern Europe.

A Charming City

Copenhagen is very walkable, from the Little Mermaid statue at Langelinie Pier to the "free town" of Christiania. But there are also many public transportation options, including efficient trains that whisk you from the airport to the city center in 20 minutes, at a cost of $3.80. There are also both a Metro subway system and a light rail commuter line, plus open double-decker buses for sightseeing.

Other ways to see the city include boat cruises, canal tours and walking routes with guides. Cykeltaxi offers guided city tours aboard bicycle rickshaws. If you want to meet local people, there are "Dine with the Danes" programs that introduce visitors not only to Danish cuisine but also to the Danish custom of "hygge," or cosiness. An offshoot of the program is called "Meet Gay Copenhagen."

Evocative neighborhoods abound in Copenhagen, including Nyhavn, where people walk along cobblestone streets dating to the 17th century and drink in harborside townhouse cafés. Hans Christian Andersen lived in no less than three houses in Nyhavn. Christiania is also a popular destination. The hippie haven, launched in 1971 when an Army barracks became vacant, is something of a social experiment in self-government. There are gaily painted buildings, crafts dealers, small shops and music in the streets.

The Green Key

Denmark founded its own eco-certification for green hotels, The Green Key, in 1994. According to Torben Kaas of HORESTA, the Danish Hotel Restaurant and Tourism Employers Association, some 70 to 80 properties have been certified (representing 15 to 20 percent of the country’s total tourist capacity), including many of the larger hotels, plus summer cottages, conference facilities, camping sites and restaurants. There are 56 separate criteria for certification, including use of chemicals, water and energy consumption, waste recycling and food preparation (with points for local sources). "You can’t get Green Key certification if you use poisonous chemicals in your laundry service, buy your kiwis from New Zealand and wrap everything four times," Kaas says. Green Key has spread to Greenland, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia and France.

"Green Key, launched in 1994, is an attempt to get hotels to economize on resources and help the environment," says Charlotte Harder of the Danish Tourist Board (newly renamed VisitDenmark). "It’s taken some convincing."

Harder points out that the modest Danes don’t necessarily brand their properties as eco-hotels, but the practices are likely to be there. At the Hotel Imperial, for instance, manager Charlotte Wylich-Muxoll points to the compact fluorescent bulbs in the light fixtures, the unbleached paper, the lowered thermostats at night and the lack of air conditioning.

Denmark is a small country, but too rich in tourist destinations to adequately cover in this short report. For many visitors, it is a quick dash to the 50 million toy bricks in Legoland, but it merits a longer stay. German tourists have discovered the west coast of Denmark, excellent for beaches and birding and just north of their border. Blãvand, where two thirds of the land is protected, offers an array of sod-roofed rental houses (some Green Key-certified).

"Eco-certification is no big problem for us," says Jan Toftdal of Blãvand’s tourist agency. "We’ve always taken the environment into consideration here."

JIM MOTAVALLI is editor of E.