Tourism officials, operators push off-season programs

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OSLO, Norway -- Northern lights and Nordic skiing. Reindeer and the Arctic Circle. Ask Americans what Norway brings to mind and such wintry images might be the replies.

Yet the vast majority of U.S. tourists most often choose to visit Norway during its short high season, from June to August, when daylight lasts longest, the weather's at its mildest -- and crowding is at its worst.

So tourism officials and tour operators are working both to extend the peak season and encourage off-season visits.

"We have tried to extend the high season from May to September because I think those are ideal travel months for Norway," said Arne Brekke, president of Brekke Tours and Travel in Grand Forks, N.D. "Norway is trying desperately to extend the season, as they get too much travel there in the summer."

For example, heritage travel is fueling growth so quickly at Brekke Tours and Travel that bookings in 2002 outstripped the pre-9/11 high season the year before.

"In spite of negative signs, people are going and I honestly don't understand it," said Brekke.

And winter travel -- despite short days, copious precipitation and nippy air -- is a natural fit that operators want to grow.

"We don't book a large amount of winter, as our business is very summer-oriented, but there are individuals braving it this time of year," said Brekke, who sent an Illinois theater group to Norway on a Henrik Ibsen-themed itinerary this month.

"And I would say that if we could get people interested in skiing in Voss or Lillehammer, more could be done to promote Norway as a winter destination like Switzerland."

Officials at the Norwegian Tourist Board (NTB) agree.

"We would love to promote winter travel, and there are tour operators that do," said Marie Guarnieri, director of the NTB offices in New York. "They find they do OK sales for the winter, but part of the reason may be they're really the only ones who do sell it."

Guarnieri said she has struggled for years to get Norwegian supplier partners to view the U.S as a viable market for the promotion of winter travel.

"Honestly, a ski vacation in Norway, including air fare from the U.S., isn't going to be much more expensive than going to Colorado," she added. "And December is definitely one of the prettier months in Norway."

Even Passage Tours, based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., still does up to 90% of its business in traditional peak months -- despite a 25-year legacy of peddling the widest range of winter tours to Scandinavia.

"But there is some movement toward winter travel," said Roald Noto, vice president of Passage Tours. "A lot of people have the idea Norway's too dark and cold then, but on the west coast, the temperature rarely drops below freezing."

Ski trips, dogsled safaris, northern lights viewings and other adventure packages are the best winter sellers at Passage Tours, which also offers two-, three- and five-night city stays in Oslo through March 31, priced from $438 per person with hotel and air.

For more information, contact Passage Tours -- which pays 10% commission -- at (800) 548-5960 or www.passagetours.com. For Brekke Tours and Travel, which pays 8%, call (800) 437-5302 or visit www.brekketours.com.

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