MADISON — Capitalizing on its natural amenities, the Swedish business community is rolling out the red carpet to beef up its tourism industry.
“For Sweden, our relationship with Madison is very important for many reasons, primarily because, for us, Madison is the gateway to the world’s biggest market,” said Lasse Sjoberg, a freelance business journalist who moved to Madison with his family two years ago.
Next month, a small delegation of Mississippians will tour Sweden, including stops in Solleftea and Stockholm.
“We want to establish exclusive tours to Sweden, beginning with Mississippi, and eventually marketing the entire U.S.,” said Sjoberg. “Many people claim we have the best salmon fishing in the world, even better than in Alaska. We have big bird and moose hunting, which is exciting to hunters.”
Sjoberg said the biggest draw might be Solleftea’s ski resorts.
“Last winter, we were skiing in Steamboat Springs, Colo., and it was fantastic, but I’ve grown up with skiing,” Sjoberg said. “However, if I lived in Madison and had never skied, I’d be shocked to see thousands of skiers and long lines. In our hometown of Solleftea, we have a very nice ski area, not crowded, and you can hire a private ski instructor for less than $12 an hour. It’s a perfect place to learn how to ski without the pressure and anxiety from crowds.”
The primary reason Sweden is promoting the tourism industry now? Buying power, Sjoberg said.
“The U.S. dollar is so strong compared to the Swedish kronor,” he said.
“In the late 1970s, when I traveled around the U.S. with a backpack, it cost 4.25 Swedish kronor to buy a dollar. Today, it costs 9.5 Swedish kronor to buy a dollar. The buying power in Sweden provides opportunities to encourage business relations.”
Bill Bryan, president of Bryan Tours of Jackson, and one of the owners and officers of MTS, parent company of Bryan Tours, said he’s taking the trip because it provides “a new opportunity to experience tourism in an innovative way.”
“I’ve been in the travel business for 35 years and have always tried to be one of the first to tour new frontiers,” Bryan said. “As a travel agent, it gives me a good business edge.”
Bryan, who hosts a 30-minute call-in show every Tuesday night on SuperTalk 97.3 FM in Jackson, plans to broadcast the weekly show from Sweden on Tuesday, March 13. The radio signal broadcasts throughout Mississippi, and the Web site broadcasts worldwide.
Swedish business leaders opted to focus on travel and tourism after two garrisons, or army bases, closed, and new jobs in private industry were needed, Sjoberg said.
“The army has traditionally been a big employer in Solleftea, but in 1994, the first one shut down, and in 2000, the second one shut down,” he said. “The easiest way to create new jobs in the private sector quickly is in the tourist industry. Besides, we have so much to offer that is attractive to Americans. For example, in the summer, when it’s 107 degrees in Mississippi, and the humidity makes it seem even hotter, it’s 75 degrees in Solleftea, which is a dry climate. It’s a very nice alternative.”
In June, the 4th annual Swedish-American Business Congress, geared toward economic development, will be held in Sweden. Pleasure items on the agenda: playing golf in the midnight sun.
“We have 24-hour daylight then,” Sjoberg said.
Last May, about 200 attendees, including 104 Swedish delegates, met at the third annual Swedish-American Business Congress at the Jackson Hilton and Convention Center in Jackson.
In 1998, when Solleftea and Madison officially formed a sister city relationship, about 150 people attended the inaugural Congress.
In 1999, 56 Mississippi delegates, including mayors from Jackson, Madison, Oxford and Weir, traveled to Sweden for the second annual congress.
Swedish-American relations have prospered lately. Last month, Svenska Cellulosa Aktiebolaget (SCA) announced that it will boost its North American presence by acquiring two divisions totaling more than $1 billion — a commercial-tissue unit from Georgia-Pacific Corp. for $850 million and a packaging company from Tuscarora Inc. for $230 million. Timber is Sweden’s biggest export industry.
Last month, Global Outreach International of Tupelo, an interdenominational mission organization with operations in several countries, toured the Galsjo Foundry, an iron mill founded in 1703 and currently owned by the Church of Sweden.
Last year, the church officially separated from the state, and Sweden is selling Galsjo Foundry, now a conference center, which is one of three estates owned by the diocese in Solleftea’s province.
“We didn’t have a Christian organization large enough in Madison, but we found Global Outreach in Tupelo, which has knowledge and experience of overseas missions,” said Phil Walker, pastor of Ridgecrest Baptist Church in Madison. “If this works out, we (Madison churches) plan to be very involved.”
Randy Von Kanel, executive vice president of Global Outreach International, confirmed that representatives surveyed the property as a possible ministry center.
“We’re looking for the finances to purchase it and to provide early support for operations,” he said.
Sjoberg said if the deal goes through, “it will open up even more communication between Sweden and Mississippi.”
On March 1, the first Swedish company, JOINTECH, makers of expansion joints for bridges and parking lots, will open in the 9,000-square-foot incubator building in the Madison Business Park.
Operated by Mississippi-Scandinavian Enterprise (MSE), the incubator building is designed to house up to 12 companies at one time. The program will serve as a transitional station for established Swedish companies to test market products in the U.S. before making larger financial commitments.
Several Swedish companies, plus a couple of Norwegian companies, are seriously considering leasing space in the incubator, Sjoberg said.
“We were fortunate to have the owner of JOINTECH choose Madison because he had originally decided to locate his business in Texas,” he said. “He had heard about Solleftea’s relationship with Madison, so before he signed anything, he decided to take a look. At first, he was skeptical, but it didn’t take long to turn him around after he realized this was the perfect place for his business.”
Because Sweden played a key role in the automotive industry — Volvo and Saab originated in Sweden — Swedish companies are looking at roles as suppliers to the Nissan plant being built near Canton, Sjoberg said.
“Americans have bought most of our companies, but with our connections, Sweden has a number of suppliers, and I think there will be companies from the Swedish car industry that will try to attract business,” he said.
Roughly 80 German companies, most with automotive ties, are located between the South Carolina cities of Greenville and Spartanburg, where economic developers have developed a niche market similar to what could happen with Mississippi and Scandinavian cities.
To keep Swedish companies abreast of the latest developments, Sjoberg publishes MSE News, a monthly newsletter that reaches more than 500 business and community leaders.
In developing the sister city relationship, language has not been a barrier. Instead, it has been an advantage for Swedes, Sjoberg said.
“It is compulsory for all Swedes to learn English, beginning in the fourth grade,” Sjoberg said. “In the seventh grade, schoolchildren choose a second foreign language to learn — either French or German.
When they reach high school, students must choose a third foreign language. That’s man
ry. We are modest enough to realize that if we try to travel the world only knowing Swedish, we won’t be very successful.”
Swedish parents are encouraged to send their children to study abroad, Sjoberg said.