The Backhouse family and the crew of the “Nereid” were the first tourists to visit Geiranger (1869) on their own. They anchored the ship and came ashore with the accompanying boat, the “Launcher.”
The first tourists were not primarily tourists, but explorers and nature enthusiasts, botanists interested in plants, and ethnographers interested in the people, traditional costumes, living conditions, and culture. The farmers in Geiranger regarded them with almost contempt because they seemed to do nothing useful other than walking around and speaking a language they did not understand. They stayed on board the boat but went ashore and distributed Asbjørn Kloster’s magazine “Menneskevennen” (The Humanitarian). On land, they took pictures of some of the locals, probably the first photographs taken in Geiranger. They were in Geiranger from Thursday to Saturday and went on walks along the river and waterfalls. In their diary, they did not write a single word about the fjords and mountain farms they passed, only about the waterfalls. They spent a lot of time under the “Seven Sisters” waterfall, and Edward Backhouse drew them in his diary. The natural phenomena interested them the most. Some people from Geiranger were also invited on board. Ellend Ellingson Hole impressed Backhouse with his red top hat. He originally came from Hole in Sunnylven and had married into the Ellendgarden farm in Maråk. He managed to make himself understood enough for the Englishmen to write in their diary that they understood both his hat and his blue knee breeches were 33 years old, and he only wore them on Sundays. They were, in other words, Sunday clothes, and that was probably the case for the women’s costumes as well. They also wore headgear, round caps. Headgear was common for women at the time. Everyone looked serious. They had never been photographed before, and they were skeptical. They also did not get to see the results. In the evening before the schooner “Nereid” was about to leave, several rowboats arrived with around 60 people from Geiranger who sang Norwegian songs to the great joy of the British tourists. As a thank you, 3-4 young people were invited on board to see the yacht.
Before the Geiranger Road over the mountain to Skjåk was completed in 1889 and from Grotli to Hjelle in 1894, Geiranger was a remote settlement at the end of a fjord. The few tourists who came mainly arrived by boat and rarely stayed on land for long. While the road was being built in 1888, 39 tourist ships arrived in Geiranger. In 1889 and 1890, there were 39 ships, and the number increased to around 70 by the turn of the century. It took only ten years for Geiranger to establish itself as a tourist village, and it was the combination of road and hotel construction that created this economic revolution in the small fjord village with just over 400 inhabitants, most of them engaged in farming.
Hotel construction began with Martinus K. Merok, who in 1869 erected a barn or trading store in Maråkvika that could also accommodate overnight guests. The “borrowed huts” later became Merok’s Hotel. The hotel gained momentum due to the road construction. The first group of road workers arrived in 1880. There were 50 men from Gloppen, and in the book “Livsminne 1862-1948” (Memoirs 1862-1948), Jon L. Flydal writes that they behaved poorly: “The way they cursed and behaved! The calm village folk had to move away from the road.” According to Flydal, these workers taught the women in Geiranger how to cook and make coffee. 300 construction workers came to the village, and the need for accommodations increased dramatically.
This prompted Nils Petter Weiberg from Norddalen to invest in building a timber building as a lodging house in the early 1880s. It later became Hotel Geiranger. On July 18, 1890, Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany visited Geiranger with three steamships. They anchored overnight, and the majesty and his entourage went ashore and admired the village from the heights above Gjørva. This was the first time a majesty had visited Geiranger. The following year, on March 16, 1891, a steamship arrived with two large barges carrying materials for a hotel to be built on Røra over Merok. The project was supported by Adolf Schieldrop and bank treasurer Stub from Ålesund. Schieldrop came from the family that operated Schielderops Hotel in Ålesund. The hotel in Geiranger was completed, and on May 23, 1893, Adolf Schieldrop came to Geiranger to open Hotel Union with himself as the manager. The company that owned the hotels went bankrupt fairly quickly, but Schieldrop was allowed to operate on behalf of the creditors until 1898.
It was Miss Julie Soug from Ringsaker who purchased the hotel for 40,000 kroner, with support from her brother. She was a hotel hostess at the Grand Hotel in Åndalsnes and married the horse carter Karl Johan Mjelva. He was the eldest son of Syver Andreas Engeset from Stranda and his wife Susanne Marie Kjølås, also from Stranda.
As early as 1890, the year after the road over the mountain was opened, Inger Severine Vesterås established a hostel in a construction shack at Djupvatnet. Two years later, the property was purchased by Lauritz Ugelvik from Ålesund. He had been a seaman for several years, spoke languages, and got a job as a porter at Hotel Geiranger. He put in a lot of effort to get the hotel project up and running but died in 1898, and the widow Ane Ugelvik, nee Velle from Ørsta, continued to run Djupvasshytta.
Geiranger around 1892. In 1893, Edvard Hole built Hotel Utsikten Bellevue and operated it until 1907 when the well-known Dahl hotel family took over and modernized the hotel.
In just ten years, five hotels were established in the small tourist village that had barely seen a single tourist before the road and hotels arrived and was even skeptical of strangers. Not many villages experience such rapid change, and the main reason for all this was the construction of the road over the mountain. Director of Public Roads Hans Hagerup Krag, who was involved in initiating the road, said at the opening that he believed the road would bring joy to the village and tourism. If only he knew!
With the hotels, tourism became part of the livelihood, and they had to accommodate for tourism. With the help of the Tourist Association and road authorities, railings were installed at cliffs where people walked, and rocks were blasted behind the Storseterfossen waterfall to allow people to walk behind it more easily. The Knife Waterfalls originally numbered only 3-4, but with some adjustments, they became seven and were named “Dei sju søstre” (The Seven Sisters). On the other side of the fjord was the Geitelva river, which split and resembled a bottleneck. This made it possible to create a story about the name “Friaren” (The Suitor), who proposed to the seven sisters but was rejected because he hit the bottle. A little further out was a thin waterfall called “Brudesløret” (The Bridal Veil). In this way, they created the story of the Geirangerfjord. This is called storytelling and is a popular marketing principle.
In Geiranger, they kept journals and recorded the number of tourist ships that arrived.
In Sunnmøre, the fjords entered the picture relatively late as destinations for cruise tourism. Northern Norway with the midnight sun was what attracted both Bergen Line and Nordenfjeldske boats. According to Hans Hole’s precise diary, 39 ships arrived in the fjord village the year before the Geiranger Road was opened. These were tourist ships, but the same ship likely visited multiple times. The first tourist ship to visit Norway was the British S/Y “Ceylon,” which arrived in Bergen in 1885 and also visited Molde, but it probably did not come to Geiranger until a few years later. S/Y “Ceylon” arrived with around 200 passengers every two weeks during the season until the summer of 1907. Geiranger was the first village in the fjord to have a pier in 1887, but it was small and barely had enough space for the regular boat.
The British Steam Yacht “Ceylon” is considered the first cruise ship to come to Norway in June 1884. It is uncertain if the ship arrived in Geiranger that early, but a few years later, it became a regular guest several times each summer until 1907.
Read more about Geiranger’s history at storfjord1.no