The Medieval Week in Visby suffers in a time of crisis
Each August for the last 29 years, the city of Visby at Gotland is home to a Medieval Week inviting thousands of reenactors, craftsmen and volunteers to dress up and take part in the festivities.
This year, however, they missed out on its traditional opening ceremony, where the “Danish King, Valdemar Atterdag” traditionally rides into town in order to tax the locals – mimicking (the myths) about the actual events in 1361, when he attacked the island with a modern and very well-equipped army. After having killed off the peasants with their billhooks in front of the wall at Visby, the city opened its gates in order to avoid despoiling. Exactly how much the good citizens in the end coughed up with is unknown. But it is believed to have been significant sums of mint, jewels and other values.
However, this year the rather famous show was called off. The reason was lack of funding, more precisely the pitiful sum of €35.000. How come?
The Medieval Week at Gotland has existed since 1983 and has a budget of €465.000, of which € 350.000 represent savings from last year, while the rest is paid for by the local government and sponsors. The event is organised by a company – Medeltidsveckan AB. This year (2012) has seen approximately the same number of visitors as last year. This has once more raised the hopes amongst the organisers for 2013, when the festival will celebrate its 30-year anniversary. Hopefully the traditional show at the beginning plus a huge re-enactment of the battle of Visby will take place, as was the case in 2011.
It is the most important tourist festival at Gotland, an island off the Swedish Coast in the Baltic Sea. Designated World Heritage, Visby was once a Hansetic city. It boasts of a nearly complete medieval wall, eight church-ruins in the middle of the city plus a very significant number of medieval houses.
In 2007 a major survey was done by “Turismens Utrednings Institut” – Medeltidsveckan 5 – 12 augusti 2007 Visby. According to this the festival was visited by at least 40.000 people (computed from the numbers of fee-paying guests). Of these, 80% stayed three days or more. During the festival 2007, 331 personal interviews were conducted. From the information gathered from these interviews it appears that 75% were tourists deriving from outside Gotland, 2/3 of which came solely for experiencing or working at the medieval week. These more than 20.000 persons – who would not have visited Gotland if the medieval Week had not lured them – generated a total turnover of €14.5 Million. All in all the Medieval Week that year generated a turnover 44 times that of the initial investment (€20.5 /0.465 Mill).
Why then is the festival experiencing economic troubles of this magnitude? Especially since it seems that €35.000 should be but a drop in the ocean of the regional budget of nearly half a billion €?
One reason is the time of the year. Originally the festival was planned as an initiative to prolong the tourist season at Gotland. However, the festival is placed right at the end of the school holidays and in the first week of August. The reason is that it actually begins on a Sunday morning with a solemn commemorative service in the cathedral of Visby with a procession afterwards out to the battlefield, where the local army of peasants were slaughtered in 1361 on the 27thof July. Another reason for the timing is the fact that the festival is dependant on a huge staff of volunteers and just plain medieval buffs; all of which prefer to work or dress up in the last week of the school-holidays. Finally a lot of the professional traders in the market – which is the main event – prefer to keep the traditional date. Rescheduling it might collide with the later medieval events in Finland and Denmark of which they do a “tour”. And as they are to some extent professional business-entrepreneurs, they will decide whether it is worth their while to travel to Visby. According to a new study by Thomas A. Michel this decision will be based on such matters as the cost of traveling, the price of the market-stall and finally whether the competition in the market is to steep.
On the other hand, local and more traditional tourist entrepreneurs on the rest of the island have for a long time lobbied for a reschedule. They claim that they experience a loss of up to 70% while the festival is on and wish to have it moved to late August.
This story about the financial woes of the local company, which organises this highly significant event, is not unique. Reports abound from other places as is witnessed by a recently published report on the “Tourism, Festivals and Cultural Events in Times of Crisis” . Well worth a read…
Tourism, Festivals and Cultural Events in Times of Crisis.
Ed. by Lise Lyck, Phil Long and Allan Xenisu Grige.
Copenhagen Business School 2012.